We are inside a 125-year-old school building in Karaköy. Walking through narrow halls with high ceilings, one can hear a piano and the voices of teachers in the classrooms. I peek through a small glass window in a classroom door where students are looking at the blackboard. We enter an empty classroom and sit. I turn on my voice recorder to capture the thoughts of students from the Mümtaz Soysal Social Science High School in Bahçelievler and students of the Karaköy Private Getronagan High School concerning their project, “Anişabur/aşure,” concerning people of different backgrounds living together.
Rumeysa Şahbaz, who came up with the idea for the project, says for most people in society it is easy to empathize with others because every single person in Turkey has a similar background, having had to endure similar pains in the past.
She first thought of starting a project when it occurred to her that most issues that intellectuals and activists frequently talk about need to be translated into the language of ordinary people. She shared this idea with a classmate, Hane Bolluk. Later, the two talked to teachers and through research found the 127-year-old Armenian high school Getronagan High in Karaköy.
Bolluk continues: “Our teachers were very supportive and promised to find other students who might be interested. When we first started, there were six of us, all of us wearing headscarves. When we first went to Getronagan, people were surprised, asking us if we were researching colleges. We tried to explain what we wanted to do but were unable to. But when the teachers left the room, there was no stopping us, and we talked for five hours straight. When we were done, I asked if they would be willing to sign the brothers' law protocol [a document to indicate the sides' appreciation for their desire to work together]. Arden [Akbıyık] looked up and said, ‘We don't need to sign any protocol, we are already siblings'.”
The Armenian students were curious, asking the reason for the project. “We are doing this project to understand ourselves. I need to understand the elements that make me the person I am to understand myself, as a person with a Turkish identity. The Turkish identity feeds on many other cultures in Anatolia: Circassians, Kurds, the Laz, Greeks, Armenians and others. These are the cultures that live together with me on this land.”
Over the past year, as part of the project, the students of the two high schools have been involved in many activities, visiting mosques, churches and each other's homes and schools and walking around Beyoğlu together. Ertuğrul Çavuşoğlu, a student in the project, says: “I had never thought about this issue before. To me, an Armenian was like someone living in the Philippines. I had no idea. It turns out we were always walking the same streets. My awareness has increased.”
On May 5, the students will give a presentation on their project. Armenian and Turkish students will give speeches concerning the practice of living together, and academics, such as Ferthat Kentel and Atilla Yayla, will speak. Linda Serkizyan, who met Bolluk and Şahbaz at an exhibition, will deliver the opening remarks. Serkizyan says: “I remember I was going to prep classes in fifth grade when a fellow student found out that I am Armenian and asked me: ‘You are supposed to have a tail. Where is it?' I was shocked. He probably lived two streets from me, but had no idea. I am very happy to be a part of this project.”
Ahsen Nur Balkan, another participant in the project, says she had no idea that there were so many Armenians in İstanbul. “We do live together, and we know each other, but we act like we shouldn't know each other,” she noted.