In the age of who-has-the-latest-iPhone/iPad/laptop/fill-in-the-blank, it’s all too easy to forget that in many places in the world – even in some of our own backyards – things like books, a desk, a climate-controlled study environment, and access, sometimes also permission, to acquire an education may be a luxury.
That is the harsh reality that too many girls in Turkey face.
Last spring I went to a showing of a documentary film and book, respectively titled Girls of Hope and Thanks to My Mother, which address female education issues in Turkey. I, with the other women there, were unanimously moved by what we saw. It’s hard not to be touched by visions of girls who fight so hard for the opportunity to be educated – a fight that is, ultimately, for the gift of having real choices in their lives.
I wrote an article for our international woman’s magazine here, and I include a portion of it here:
As with so many issues that are bandied about in the public and media but which register only on the periphery of our busy personal lives, it is easy to be disconnected from this social blight. However, for approximately 15% of women in Turkey – up to 45% in certain areas – illiteracy is a reality that colors and defines their lives, both the present and the future. It is a reality that Aysegul Selenga Taskent and Delizia Flaccavento, through the film Girls of Hope and photography book Thanks to My Mother, powerfully bring to life for all of us.
Like many nations, Turkey faces a gap between educational aspirations and reality, a reality that can be impacted by one’s geographical location, economic status, and sociocultural situation. While eight years of education has been compulsory in Turkey, in areas of the country girls face a sobering reality where education is not guaranteed or, as with high school, sometimes not even an option; the hope of obtaining a high school, or higher, education, can be dim. This is especially true for girls in Eastern and Southeastern Turkey. With limited or no ability to read or write, their futures are generally destined to a life of hardship – marriages they are forced into at a young age and caring for too many dependents with too few resources.
Education is these girls only hope for the chance of a better future. One Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), the Association in Support of Contemporary Living (ÇYDD), funded by individual and institutional donations, offers hope via educational scholarships. Schooling itself is free in Turkey. However, the scholarships cover costs like school supplies, transportation where available, and basic expenses, such as living and food, all of which enables and encourages families to allow girls to continue their education.
Unfortunately, even with the scholarship, the promise of continued education is not a given. Barriers in the form of traditional attitudes, as well as practical challenges, can stand between a girl and the dreams that a scholarship could afford her to realize. It is these obstacles and, especially, the hope, courage and perseverance with which the girls face these obstacles, that are brought to life by Aysegul Selenga Taskent in the film Girls of Hope and Delizia Flaccavento in the book Thanks to My Mother.
The film, Girls of Hope, follows five girls’ journeys as each faces tangible and intangible obstacles to achieving their educational dreams. Vivid cinematography conveys sobering realities where things taken for granted by us – like a desk and a dedicated, heated study space – are an absolute luxury. Viewers feel the heartbreak and frustration of one girl who is lucky enough to win a scholarship only to have her aspirations cut short by a brother whose traditional attitude and absolute rule forbids her to attend school. We share in the relief and celebration of another who, due to the combination of support and scholarship from ÇYDD, and the girl’s sheer determination to continue her education, escapes an unwanted, early marriage, at age 14, to a first cousin. More than anything, though, one feels the desire and determination that the girls have for an education, for a future.
The book, Thanks to My Mother, weaves the stories of 43 girls through powerful photographs and the girls’ own touching letters written to ÇYDD in hope of receiving a scholarship. Printed in both Turkish and English, the words of each girl will move and inspire the reader. “This is the story of a heart living for its dreams, holding hope in its tiny hands…,” writes one applicant. Another writes, “I’ve got a personality that makes me follow my dreams and work very hard to make my dreams come true. Some people have dreams, but they do not work for them, and thus fail…” One girl expresses, “…I want to free myself from ignorance…I want to thank you again for the scholarship. I’ll be forever grateful to you.”
Education offers a lifeline not only to the girls, but to their families, who the girls are committed to helping: “…my biggest dream is to study and learn a profession, so that I can financially support my family…” “My mother works hard for us: in the summer, she goes to the fields to pick strawberries, in the winter to pick potatoes. While working, mom forgets about herself, she even forgets to eat…Food is a problem for us, sometimes we have nothing for breakfast but my mother tries to find something to eat. Since there is no heater, sometimes I feel cold, but I cuddle my sisters so I don’t feel cold anymore…I really want to get an education, have a profession, and thus rescue my family from poverty.”
In fact, the wish to give back extends not only to the girls’ families, but also to their communities and other girls, like them, who are in need. “My family couldn’t afford my high school expenses..we couldn’t even afford…medical expenses…There was no hope…My dream of going to high school would remain a dream…But now, here I am, at Babaeski Anatolian High School…I want to be a literature teacher and give a hand to the young people whose economic status is not good enough to get an education. I would like to give them both financial and moral support. Because they fully deserve it.” “I’m going to study hard and become a pediatrician. As a person who received help to study, I will help those who are in need in the future. I’d like to send my appreciation and deepest respect to all those who have given me this opportunity.”
The film and book also remind us how the capricious quirk of circumstance – whether by fate or chance – can bestow so much to one while withholding from another, something that is easily forgotten when one is on the receiving end. “…we do not live in a good house, due to our bad economic situation…studying conditions for my brother and me are not good. Many of my friends have their own room, computer and they can attend private courses. But they do not study and waste their opportunities. I get mad at them. They do not study at all, while I sometimes study with wet books because our roof leaks. Despite all the odds, I will not give up; I am going to study whatever the conditions are and I will make sure both my family and myself live in better conditions. As long as there are associations like yours, resolute hearts living in poverty in this country will never cease to emit successful beams of light.”
More than anything, though, the film and book are testaments to the astounding drive and commitment the girls – and their supporters, like their mothers – have to realize their dream of getting an education, no matter what. “There are times when I don’t even have shoes to wear for school. I’m embarrassed to go to school this way. We have nothing in our lunch boxes. But regardless of the hard conditions, my mother sends us to school. We love studying. We want to go to school and save ourselves from poverty.” “Winters in our town are very cold. My school is 6 km from my house, but we cannot afford the school bus. So I walk and walk until my feet freeze…In winter my eyelashes freeze. The snow is more than half meter high. But I don’t give up. As the poet Mumin Sekman says: “Stop blaming the wind, learn to use your sails.” But my sails are in your hands.”
In the end, the message is one of hope and resolution, the certainty that positive change is not only possible, but, with a little effort and modest generosity, a promise. “Sometimes just when we stop expecting or hoping for things from life, we come across some news that makes us smile. Exactly when all your plans fail and you surrender to a life full of ignorance, you smile again…This happened to me…Now I’m in the last year of high school. I’ve been getting a scholarship from ÇYDD for 5 years. I’m preparing for the university entrance exam and I am confident that I’ll pass it…I’ll do my best to return the kindness and generosity of these people, who freed me from the arms of ignorance and informed me about what is going on in our society. Lots of people in our society are unaware of these things. They are unaware of the happiness and honor of reaching out to poor little girls forgotten in remote villages and encouraging them to stand up. But I strongly believe in education, and that people will have a more modern perspective. Through your support, a young generation with an open mind and full of hope will grow. I thank you for saving thousands of girls like me from financial hardships and for introducing me to life.”
If, after you read it, you care to share the gift of hope that education can give, please see the following sites which have more information how you can touch – actually change – a girl’s life.
A $500 donation to Turkish Philanthropy Funds will fund one year of a girl’s high school education, and you will also receive the award-winning film, Girls of Hope, and documentary photography book, Thanks to My Mother…http://www.tpfund.org/2013/11/give-a-gift-that-matters/
…However, donations of any amount are enough to help change a life to the better; for other donations, please go to http://cydd.org.tr/eng/sayfa.asp?id=26
Please feel free to email me at Darcy.Holmer@yourbestfit.org for more information, or you can also email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, or go to CYDD’s website to learn more: http://www.cydd.org.tr/eng/default.asp
In this season of giving, one of the most precious gifts we can give is that of hope.