EI solidarity mission to Türkiye: Educators and unionists on the frontlines

published 11 April 2023 updated 18 October 2023

An Education International delegation visited the earthquake-affected area in Turkiye, meeting with teachers, unionists, volunteers, and local leaders to deliver a message of solidarity and convey condolences for the terrible losses suffered, but also to take stock of the scale of the destruction and the needs on the ground in order to inform continuing solidarity work.

The solidarity mission in support of EI member Eğitim Sen and trade union confederation KESK was led by EI General Secretary David Edwards, EI Vice-President for Europe Johanna Jaara Åstrand, and Maike Finnern, member of the EI Executive Board and President of GEW, Germany.

From April 1st to the 3rd, the EI delegation travelled to Adıyaman, Gölbaşı, Pazarcık, Antakya, Samandağ, and Iskenderun, visiting union coordination centres, schools, and the camps where the displaced are housed.

“Nothing can prepare you for the sheer scale of destruction and tragedy”, expressed David Edwards. “The sense of loss is immense but there is also an invincible sense of hope, with so many brave and dedicated people determined to rebuild their communities and help each other get through this.”

“What we heard from community after community was that the government response came far too late,” Edwards stressed. “The mobilization of educators and unionists has been absolutely outstanding. Eğitim Sen and KESK have been on the ground since day one, providing emergency support to their members and communities. The crisis is still in the acute phase. Our solidarity across the world is essential right now, for immediate relief, and in the future, when the huge task of rebuilding must begin.”

Welcoming the delegation, Osman Işçi, KESK International Officer, thanked “Education International for its continuing support and solidarity since the very first day. Solidarity is extremely important in these difficult conditions in Türkiye and Syria and EI’s presence shows that solidarity is much more than a word. Your presence means a lot to us and helps us to overcome these challenges.”

Inadequate government response to the worst earthquake in 100 years

The two powerful earthquakes that struck the south-eastern region of Türkiye and northern Syria on 6 February 2023 left behind immense tragedy and devastation. According to official figures, an estimated 50,000 people were killed and tens of millions were affected, including 1.7 million Syrian refugees. The real numbers are much higher according to union estimates. According to UNICEF, more than 850,000 children have been displaced. Al Jazeera reports that in Türkiye, the disruption of education has impacted 4 million children and 200,000 teachers in affected areas. 47,000 buildings have been completely destroyed, including schools, and many more have been severely damaged.

Many of the local teachers and union leaders who met the EI delegation reported that the search and rescue operations started as late as five days after the disaster in some areas. Many deaths could have been avoided. “This natural disaster became a man-made disaster,” noted Ikram Atabay, General Secretary of Eğitim Sen.

The government response has been completely inadequate, leaving many without support to meet basic needs. Despite the official narrative that the situation is under control, major concerns remain. The housing situation is critical. Recent floods have destroyed the tents survivors used for shelter. While containers are better suited, very few are available. In a few months’ time, the very high temperatures typical for summer in the area will bring additional challenges in terms of providing safe shelter. Furthermore, limited access to hygiene facilities, drinkable water, and healthcare is fueling fears of epidemics, in a context where health infrastructure has also been severely impacted.

The government response also failed to engage stakeholders and communities on the ground. EI affiliates reported the absence of social dialogue which would allow for better coordination and a more effective crisis response. “We are making every effort to help and support our members and their communities, but our resources are limited. There needs to be better coordination between authorities and civil society organisations, including unions. It has been extremely challenging to engage in consultations on the crisis response so far,” the General Secretary of Eğitim Sen stressed.

This latest tragedy further exacerbates inequalities resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, in a region inhabited by different minority groups that already experience structural discrimination (mostly Kurdish, Alevi and Christian minorities).

The impact on education and school communities

School communities in the area have been devastated. Thousands of teachers and students were lost, schools were destroyed, and many people were forced to relocate. For those left behind, the challenges are immense.

Educators are particularly worried about the impact of the disaster on their students. Many have moved away or dropped out, all have suffered trauma or bereavement. Access to psychosocial support is a major need in the medium to long term for both students and teachers.

As the government moves to re-open schools, educators and students expressed concern about the lack of transparency around building safety. After brief inspections, damaged buildings were quickly declared safe, but teachers and students are afraid to enter.

Ikram Atabay, General Secretary of Eğitim Sen, stated: “Our union is in favour of in-person education. Distance education presents a number of challenges. But we need to make sure that students and teachers are provided with a safe and healthy environment to teach and learn”.

Teachers also have no place to stay with their families. In many instances, the government offers dormitories which are segregated by gender, which means families must live separately.

Financial concerns are also at the forefront. While many teachers lost their homes and belongings, they have only been receiving their basic salary, without the supplements for extra hours which formed the bulk of their income. They now have less money to support their families amid a terrible situation.

Educators are particularly worried about the impact of the disaster on their students. Many have moved away or dropped out, all have suffered trauma or bereavement. Access to psychosocial support is a major need in the medium to long term for both students and teachers.

Ignoring the terrible impact of the earthquake on students in the area, the government insists on making no amendments to the national examinations that take place at the end of grades 8 and 12 and determine access to a limited number of prestigious high schools and bachelor’s programmes. The exams will run as always, placing students affected by the earthquake at a clear and unfair disadvantage.

Unions step up

The response and mobilisation of organisations across civil society has been much more effective, stepping into the gaps left by the government.

From the first day, the education union Eğitim Sen together with the trade union confederation KESK mobilised members from across the country to reach the affected communities and provide vital support.

Supplies being collected at the Eğitim Sen branch in Samandağ

KESK set up coordination centres, bringing together all sectoral local branches in the 11 provinces affected by the earthquake. Support activities kicked off on the second day, with unionists reaching hundreds of villages and thousands of families in the affected area. Medical centres and activities for children were soon made available.

Medical centre set up by KESK in Antakya

In Adıyaman, in collaboration with local authorities from Izmir and a small publisher, unionists have opened a library with books and textbooks for children. Housed in a container, the library provides a safe space for children to learn. Unionists hope they will find a way to create more libraries, but containers and books are scarce.

Union members from different regions of the country are travelling to the affected areas and working as volunteers a few days at a time, on a rotating basis. In this way, support services are made available to those who need them.

Social dialogue and solidarity are imperative

The need for the government to work with unions and communities is acute. Those present in the most affected areas are best placed to inform the government response and help direct resources where they are most urgently needed.

“Teachers on the ground know best what needs to happen for education. The health workers on the ground know best what needs to happen for nutrition, health, and sanitation. They need to be part of the process through social dialogue between government and unions,” Edwards stressed, adding that Education International “will put pressure on the government, we will tell the world what is happening, and we will continue to build solidarity and raise the requisite support.”

Education International member organisations have shown great generosity in contributing to the EI Solidarity Fund and are encouraged to continue to do so to support colleagues in Türkiye and Syria in their crisis response and massive reconstruction efforts. For further information and to contribute to the EI Solidarity Fund, contact the EI Secretariat at [email protected].