roma turkey distance learning
by Jonathan Lee

In a small apartment in the Sancaktepe-Emek neighbourhood of Istanbul, 12-year-old Miray sits at home, trying to get her 9-month-old brother to sleep. Her other younger brother, only 3-years-old, plays on the floor. It is just past midday on a Tuesday – a school day – but Miray is at home, looking after her siblings while her mother is at work; unable to attend classes because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and unable to join her classmates remotely because of her family’s precarious financial situation.

Miray and her family belong to Europe’s largest and most discriminated ethnic minority group – the Roma – who because of centuries of persecution and exclusion often exist on the margins of society, where they are subjected to racism and poverty.

Earlier this year when the Covid-19 pandemic forced many countries to rethink how they educated their children, Turkey turned to TV as a solution. On 23rd March, the Ministry of Education launched TV-based distance learning for around 18 million schoolchildren, broadcast on three state run channels and the Education Informatics Network (EBA). The Education Minister, Ziya Selçuk, gave the very first lecture in which he advised families to turn their houses into a classroom and create conditions so that their children can benefit from distance learning.

at least 80% of Romani children in Turkey are unable to benefit from distance learning because of lack of internet, TV access, or conditions where they are unable to study from home

For Miray’s family, and many other Romani families in Turkey, this was simply not possible. Her mother used to earn a living recycling paper, but since the pandemic started she has been unable to do this. Recently she started a new job as a cleaner, but they still have difficulty accessing food let alone distance learning. Like many other low income families in Turkey, they cannot access the Education Informatics Network on their television. Neither can they afford the cost of an internet connection and electronic device, which would enable online learning for Miray. The pressures her family faces from their vulnerable socio-economic situation make it nigh impossible for Miray to study from home; a small, old television in the living room now represents her sole method of accessing education. At the same time, her mother struggles to earn enough money to provide for Miray and her siblings, as well being responsible for cooking, cleaning, and the rest of the household duties. Without additional support, it is unlikely Miray will be able to realistically follow the regular educational programming. 

I get up in the morning and have to leave for work, I just started a new job as a cleaner and have been going to this stair cleaning job for 10 days” says Miray’s 33-year-old mother, Zeynep. “Miray wakes up in the morning with me and looks after her brothers while I am at work. She is trying to take care of the children at home but she is too young, that’s why I’m thinking of quitting. If the schools were reopened, I would be very happy. She also wants it very much. There is no internet at home – we do not even have a computer or tablet. There’s only children to look after the house. Miray has fallen behind from her lessons, she has fallen far behind in all of her lessons and has lost her motivation to learn.”

Human rights activists in Turkey have little confidence in the government’s distance learning scheme and the chances of Romani children being able to continue their education through it. Hacer Foggo is a human rights activist based in Istanbul who established the Deep Poverty Network to aid families struggling with basic necessities during the pandemic period. She estimates that at least 80% of Romani children in Turkey are unable to benefit from distance learning because of lack of internet, TV access, or conditions where they are unable to study from home:

From my own work, I can estimate that tens of thousands of children will be adversely affected. Already we heard in the statement of the National Education Minister on August 30th, he mentioned a problem with access to education for 1.5 million children. The government say they can receive distance education, but for these children they cannot because they cannot access the internet. And for example, EBA TV, the distance education system, it collapsed in the whole country for a whole day recently. I am afraid that many Romani children will just drop out completely under these conditions.”

Issues with the EBA television learning system aside, it looks like the Ministry of Education has turned to distance learning as a long-term solution for Turkish children. Whilst there is some provision for primary school aged children to study in classrooms in some areas, many middle school and secondary school aged kids must rely on TV and internet classes for the foreseeable future, while the promise of a vaccine in Turkey appears to still be some way off before mass vaccinations of a majority of the public begin.

Cases per 100,000 residents by region as of 2 December 2020 CC BY-SA 4.0 Portugal1337

For Miray, and tens of thousands of other Romani children, this means she is essentially forced to drop out from education. Her mother Zeynep believes that the schools reopening is the only way for her child, and others like her, to resume learning:

Schools need to be opened. Why? Because this disease has been for five to six months in our lives, our children could receive four or five hours of education with social distancing in classrooms in accordance with the rules. They should at least have education for two hours per day. I would like to send her in if the schools were opened, because it is very good for my child’s psychology. She learns something there and has the opportunity have a social life with her schoolmates.”

Miray being out of school is only one of the many issues Zeynep has to contend with as a result of the pandemic, which has especially affected vulnerable Romani communities across Europe. For Zeynep, the main concern is where her children’s next meal will come from:

The pandemic has affected our lives a lot. Before I was collecting paper, then we couldn’t collect paper anymore, and we did not get help from anyone. I could not pay my rent for 4 months, so my landlord wanted to throw us out. They have cut the gas in the apartment so I bought a small tube and I’m trying to cook with that instead. I have to give sugar water to my baby to feed him. My baby’s diaper, I have to tie a bag instead. I started the job cleaning the stairs because of the electricity and water bills, but since Miray cannot take care of the baby alone, I will have to quit this job. The pandemic affected our situation very much, we went hungry here with children.”

Credit: Yildiz Yazicioglu (VOA) – TBMM Yasama Faaliyetlerine Başladı, Public Domain

In the neighbouring Istanbul district of Ataşehir, the story is very similar for 13-year-old Selcen, 10-year-old Ayşen, and 9-year-old Halil whose mother Ebru also worked as a waste paper collector before the pandemic. Now unable to work, Ebru can no longer afford access to the internet and her family doesn’t have the capacity for home schooling through their television at home. 

“They cannot go to school right now, and they cannot participate in distance education. I used to have internet at home but it was shut off due to debt, now we have no connection. We have no computer anyway. There is a TV, but the EBA does not work on it. The children cannot follow any lessons. Ayşen has a notebook of her own and tries to read by combining letters on the page, but since she also has a developmental and attention disorder, she cannot do anything like this on her own.”

Ebru, like many other Romani mothers, would like to send her children to school again, even if only for a few socially distanced hours. She currently receives no homework from the teachers at her children’s school. When asked what she thinks the government should do to help people like her she says that they need to have the basic tools for learning in their home:

I would like that my children had their basic school needs met; notebooks and pen. I could also receive lessons via WhatsApp on my phone, so I would request a laptop or tablet so that the children can then do their lessons better.”

The lack of consideration for Roma in designing distance learning is emblematic of a wider problem of leaving Roma out of the equation altogether in implementing Covid-19 emergency measures. The unequal access to education Roma face in Turkey is a trend which has been repeated across all of Europe since the pandemic began. A statement earlier this year from the Roma Education Fund, supported by 21 civil society organisations, called for urgent action to help Romani children in multiple European countries who are at risk of falling behind or dropping out of education completely because of Covid-19 emergency measures. Many Romani children who live in marginalised, segregated communities have no access to internet, computers, or in many cases even electricity.

Without measures to specifically address the access to education gap for Roma in this crisis, distance learning measures will continue to fail families who are unable to access basic utilities. For those children already disadvantaged by their circumstance, ethnic segregation and institutional racism, the coronavirus pandemic looks to be the final nail in the coffin for any chance they might’ve had of escaping their situation and enjoying some measure of equality.

The names of some of the people mentioned in this article have been changed to protect their identities.

Featured image by Hacer Foggo

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