What progress was made in giving Roma children in Turkey access to education has been wiped out by COVID-19.
For the Sinnik family, COVID-19 did not mean only worries about health and money. It effectively robbed nine year-old Ozberk of his schooling too.
Like most Roma families in Turkey, the Sinniks can ill-afford the laptops, smartphones and Wifi required for home-schooling in the era of the novel coronavirus.
So when schools went online to combat the pandemic, Istanbul fourth grader Ozberk was left to fend for himself.
He can watch some educational programmes on the family’s one TV, but the only other device in the household of six people is a dilapidated mobile phone that Ozberk’s grandfather, Fahrettin, takes with him when he sets out from the northern suburb of Kustepe to sell flowers in the city.
A used tablet provided by the NGO Deep Poverty Network quickly died, while the limited teaching the NGO provides is no substitute for proper schooling, the family says.
Ozberk said he was “very sad” to be unable to learn online or play with his school friends. “At the moment, there are no devices for the kid to use,” said Fahrettin.
It is a common problem for Turkey’s Roma, for whom access to education, not to mention other basic rights, has long been a struggle.
“Our efforts have been set back 10 years,” said Elmas Arus, a film director and head of the Zero Discrimination Association that provides support for Roma communities. “Those children who were the target of our efforts, for whom we tried to provide access to education, are now completely cut off from education.”
EDUCATION UPGRADE PROJECT UNFINISHED
Anywhere between two and five million Roma are believed to live in Turkey, often on the margins of society and victims of widespread discrimination.
Local and international organisations have fought to improve their lot, but what progress was made in terms of access to education was set back badly when the government shut all schools and universities at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020.
They reopened in September but went back online on November 20 as coronavirus cases surged anew.
Arus said that much of the technology required for distance learning is simply beyond the reach of most Roma communities in Turkey.
“While there were still problems that needed to be addressed in accessing face-to-face education, Roma children cannot access distance education,” she said.
Those Roma children who do have access to the Internet and a computer still face difficulties given the low rates of literacy among Roma parents.
The situation facing Roma communities has exposed the failings of a government project launched in 2010 to provide children across the country with cutting-edge education tools, including interactive whiteboards and a tablet computer for every pupil.
‘Project Fatih’, as it was known, was due to take four years, but remains unfinished.
Dogged by allegations of corruption and frequent personnel changes at the top, the project is believed effectively dead. No budget funds were allocated to the project in last year’s budget nor have any been earmarked in spending plans for 2021 and 2022.
Organisations like the Deep Poverty Network have had to plug the gaps; the organisation recently distributed 51 donated tablets to Roma children across Istanbul.
In collaboration with Open Space Association and Heinrich Boll Stiftung Turkey, the Deep Poverty Network published a study in November last year that showed how poverty in Turkey has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
One striking finding was that 13 per cent of children among the 103 Roma families surveyed had been forced into work because the adults in their families were either sick or unable to work for other reasons. Six per cent were shouldering the economic burden of the family.
Hacer Foggo, founder of the Deep Poverty Network, said the failure of state education in Turkey during the pandemic was not only contributing to poverty today but laying the ground for such poverty to persist in the future.
“The most important indication of grave poverty is when people leave the lack of future perspective and poverty to their children as a legacy,” Foggo told BIRN.
PANDEMIC WORSENS PLIGHT OF MINORITY GROUPS
Roma children are not alone in Turkey in being able to take part properly in distance learning.
According to a report published last year by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, OECD, only 67 per cent of school children in the country have access to computers for distance learning, well below the average of 89 per cent for the 77 countries covered in the report.
But the picture is even worse for minority groups, underscoring deep socio-economic inequalities in Turkey.
According to an October 2020 report by Mehmet Rustu Tiryaki, an MP from the pro-Kurdish opposition People’s Democratic Party, while a countrywide average of 80.9 per cent of school children have access to the state online education platform EBA, that figure plummets to 22.2 per cent in particularly impoverished, ethnic minority areas of the country such as the southeast.
“Almost 25 percent of the children who are being educated in Turkey could not access any of the education materials and could not have an education,” the report says. It concluded that most Kurdish, Syrian, Arab and Roma children, refugee children and those with special needs have been almost completely deprived of education during the pandemic.
Thirteen year-old Calibe Sultan is among them.
Calibe lives with her grandparents Salih and Calibe Kaynak in a single room equipped with a wood stove for heating, a small gas cooker and a tin basin. They have no table or chairs. Her family survives by collecting and selling old paper.
“My granddaughter does not have a computer, Internet, nothing,” said her grandmother, Calibe. “There is only one old television set at home and it doesn’t work for EBA. We don’t even have a telephone, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Nowadays, education is linked to wealth. But we didn’t even have a roof on our house until recently. We want our child to have an education, but we just don’t have the means.”
Calibe, the granddaughter, said she was “always behind” at school. “I don’t know how to close the gap,” she said. “I need a tablet computer but I can’t have one.”
Originally published on Balkan Insight by Güliz Vural.
Image Credit: BIRN, Igor Vujcic