On a hot day in mid-June, 12-year-old Medya Ormek and her family gathered together, sitting on pallets or plastic lawn chairs, to watch Kurdish news and music videos on a small television. To cope with the temperature, they have moved the contents of their sitting room into the shady entrance to their three-story Diyarbakir home, where a breeze from the open door and the rickety ceiling fan make the midday bearable. One of Medya's sisters serves hot tea and the conversation turns, as it always seems to in this urban heart of Turkey's Kurdish southeast, to politics. That day, they were discussing the recent announcement by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that schools in Turkey would now offer the once-banned Kurdish language as an optional lesson. In the media, it was heralded as an "historic step," but Medya and her family disagreed.
"There are 20 million people in north Kurdistan. An optional lesson is shameful," said Medya's father. "And I don't trust Erdogan, I think that he is lying." Only time will tell if his suspicions are borne out, but this family has good reason to worry about the government. Young Medya has been on the front lines of the Kurdish struggle to revitalize their language, long restricted in Turkey, teaching classes in her home at great risk to both herself and her family.
Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Kurds who refuse to assimilate have been alienated from Turkish society and politics. The existence of the Kurdish minority, which makes up 20% of the country's population, is not acknowledged in the Turkish constitution. In the early 1980s, the Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK (which Turkey, the EU, and the U.S. all classify as a terrorist organization) took up arms in the mountains of Turkey and Iraq. Though that violent struggle has come to embody the Kurdish issue in Turkey, to most Kurds language remains at the heart of the dispute. Speaking Kurdish was illegal in Turkey until 1991 and, until Erdogan's announcement, was still illegal in Turkish schools, part of a larger effort to downplay Kurdish culture and discourage the Kurdish separatist movement. Many Kurds, defying the ban, have had to either flee to the mountains or languish in prison. For them, the right to speak Kurdish is about more than just language. Turkish Kurds draw the borders of their long-sought Kurdish nation with language. Every word of Kurdish is a protest.
Erdogan's announcement carried particular significance for Medya and her family. Like many residents of Diyarbakir, the Turkish government had forced them to leave their village and move to the city, where they speak primarily Kurdish. But Medya -- a tall, dark-haired girl with a wry giggle -- is decidedly uncommon. Before she turned 11, she had become both a local media darling and the target of a police investigation, all for teaching Kurdish.
"My first day of school was very scary," Medya said. She didn't speak a work of Turkish and was forbidden from communicating in Kurdish. "I would cry every day." She didn't understand why she was being punished for speaking the language she'd always heard at home, and felt dismay at not being able to communicate with friends who had forgotten, or never been taught, their native Kurdish. She worried about failing the Turkish-taught classes and about being punished by her Turkish-speaking teachers.
Medya decided that she would rather be thought defiant than stupid. So, one day, she invited some friends over to play.
"I told them we would play with dolls and speak Kurdish," she told me as we sat in her classroom, a renovated chicken coop on the roof of her family home, which she nicknamed "Cigerxwin classroom" after the Kurdish poet. On the front wall is a white board, where Medya writes Kurdish vocabulary, as well as photographs of family and friends -- some, like Medya's older brother, lost to the ranks of the PKK and others, like Medya's namesake, former political prisoners -- and local artwork, some sent to her by admiring dissidents. In Medya's classroom, Turkish was banned.
Four friends showed up for that first lesson, but as word spread -- and some local reporters caught wind -- Medya's class grew. At one time, she was cramming 27 regular students into the small room, showing videos, critiquing their writing, and listing vocabulary. She even got her certificate in a teaching program because "I wanted to be on a more academic level." In class she was, by far, the youngest student. Locals were initially discouraging. "At first they put me down, saying that I should play instead of going to a classroom," she said. "Yeah, I wanted to play, but I had other things on my mind. They got used to me."
Soon, playtime turned serious. "One day my friend called me and said I had to come home because there were reporters there. I went and there were no cameras. A man asked me in Kurdish, 'How are you?' I replied in Kurdish, and he said 'Shame on you.'" He was a policeman, there to investigate Medya's class.
Authorities found report cards that Medya had made to hand out to her students. They mimicked the official Turkish report cards, which are emblazoned with a portrait of Ataturk. Medya's parents were accused of slandering the Turkish state, a crime that could carry a six-year sentence. The case was eventually dismissed, but the ordeal made Medya's parents, for whom jail does not seem like a remote possibility, fearful for their fate and for their daughter's. Though she cannot be jailed as a minor for speaking Turkish, she will be an adult in a few short years.
Her mother especially worried for her daughter's future. In early spring of 2012, before the ban was lifted, we talked about the possibility of Medya's arrest. "They can't take her now," she told me. "But when she's old enough they could capture her and take her to prison." For Medya, the lesson of her parent's court case was less cautionary than inspiring; it made her angry to see her mother forbidden from voicing a defense in Kurdish, the only language she knows. It is still the only language Medya is willing to speak, even though she learned fluent Turkish in school.
I wasn't surprised when Erdogan's announcement failed to appease Medya and her family. Their reaction -- "I do not accept it," said her older brother -- reflects both the intensity of the struggle for cultural rights in Kurdish Turkey and the cynicism Kurds feel about state half-measures. Erdogan's AKP administration is a vast improvement over past governments, but the Kurdish issue remains largely unresolved. Offering Kurdish as an elective in school is significant progress, to be sure, but it only intensified resentment among Diyarbakir's teachers, a sign of just how deep the mistrust goes.
I went to visit the Diyarbakir's Teacher's Union, where I found the region's educators drinking tea and reading the newspaper in a sunny lounge. None had any positive words for the news. "The optional lesson is not a reaction to people's demands," said a primary school teacher who, like all of the teachers I spoke to, asked to remain anonymous for fear of their safety. "There is no legal way of enforcing this or plans to put it into the constitution," another complained. A computer teacher was more open-minded. "It's a positive step," he said. "But Kurdish should be an official language in all schools [in the Kurdish region]." Another teacher said, angrily, "Kurdish is not a foreign language. It lives here."
The teachers bitterly recalled Erdogan's speech to Turks living Germany, in which he urged them to stay culturally Turkish. Abdullah Demirbas, the mayor of Diyarbakir's Sur district, also brought this up to me. "Erdogan said that for the Turkish people, assimilation is a humanitarian crime. This is a double standard," Demirbas told me. It rankled him that Erdogan would insist that Turks abroad resist assimilation, while maintaining policies that many Kurds feel are intended to force them to assimilate into Turkish culture. "The mother tongue education will divide this country," Demirbas said.
Kasim Birtek, the chairman of the local teacher's union, fumed that he felt personally insulted for not being involved in the government's decision-making, about which he'd known nothing until the announcement. It only cemented his belief that the Turkish government still saw Kurds as a problem to resolve, rather than as citizens with a right to participate in their own governance.
"It's a project to prevent Kurdish people from getting rights," he said, worried that the effort would defuse the larger Kurdish push for full rights. "If this isn't covered under the constitution it won't stand on its feet." If there was to be a real opening for the Kurdish language in the Turkish education system, the hundreds of members of Birtek's union were ready. But none of them have been told how to implement the new policy. "Teachers cannot adapt to the changing system," he said.
Birtek was fed up with Turkish education. The lack of Kurdish is the main problem, he said, but far from the only one. "There are 60 kids in one classroom. There is no consensus on curriculum. And worst, the people only learn things by heart," he said. "They are not taught to understand anything."
This story was originally featured in The Atlantic.