Days before the 4th annual Turkish Olympiad finals in New Jersey, Turkish pop music was echoing through the hallways of the Brooklyn Amity School–New York’s only Turkish-American private school. A group of students gathered in a room with their music teacher, practicing their songs and poems with palpable excitement. One of the students, 11-year-old Nagihan Ozturk, was reciting a poem in Turkish. Her family, who immigrated to the U.S. from Turkey 15 years ago, wants her to have a stronger connection to their native country. Nagihan says she has been to Turkey a few times and her grandmother is her ‘Turkish master’ when she is there.
“My grandmother likes my Turkish, well she sometimes corrects me cause I am like not that sure about words. So sometimes I ask my grandmother if my Turkish is fine, if this is okay, this is good. So I sometimes mix up something and my grandma fixes my Turkish,” she explained.
For most immigrant parents, it is important to keep their children connected to the country they came from. That’s certainly true in the Turkish American community, which has developed the Turkish Olympiad as a unique way to promote Turkish language and culture among young immigrants as well as kids whose families are not from Turkey. It’s is a competition in Turkish singing, dancing and poetry organized by The Turkish Cultural Center in New York.
Nagihan’s family chose to send her to a Turkish-American school so that she could learn the Turkish language and cultural values along with the conventional American curriculum. She said participating in the Turkish Olympiad helped improve her Turkish.
“I now can understand many words that I didn’t know before which I learned while I was working on my poem,” she said.
At the Olympiad finals on May 1, 2011, hundreds of students who study at private and charter Turkish schools throughout the East Coast showed up at Fellician College in New Jersey. They were accompanied by about 2,000 parents and friends who were there to cheer and clap as they showcased their abilities and talents in Turkish language and culture.
The students from Brooklyn were up against peers from New Jersey, Massachusetts and Connecticut. There were contests in Turkish folk dance performance, song and poetry. The prize was enticing: winners get flown to Istanbul in June for the International Olympiad competitions in which 1,000 young people from around the world compete.
Hayrullah Erdogan, a Turkish parent, was at the competition to support his son, Muzaffer Erdogan, who attends the Brooklyn Amity school. “We are very happy that there are Turkish schools here. For our kids’ future, for Turkish culture and teaching the culture they are doing a great job,” Erdogan said. He speaks to his children in Turkish at home, and encourages them to watch Turkish TV.
One of the Olympiad organizers, Turkish Cultural Center of New York President Mehmet Kilic, said the mission of the event was to keep Turkish culture alive in America.
“When the kids are born here or come here at early ages they grow up with Americans around. Many Turkish families try to teach their kids Turkish language and culture because they don’t want their kids to be a foreigner when they go to Turkey and they want their kid to blend in the family easily and that is only achieved though teaching the culture and the language here.”
Some 70 thousand Turkish immigrants live in New York City according to unofficial estimates. There is only one Turkish-American private school in New York, but some families send their kids to weekend school at the general consulate building of Turkey in Manhattan. New York public schools don’t offer instruction in Turkish, so if parents want their child to learn Turkish, private Turkish schools or after-school programs are the only option.
But it’s not just Turkish students who participate in the Olympiad or attend Turkish-American schools. Kilic said an equal goal of the Olympiad is to promote Turkish language and culture among non-Turkish youth.
13 years old R.J. Mollaev was at the Olympiad to compete in Turkish singing in the non-native-Turkish-speaker category. R.J.’s family is from Azerbaijan, but his mother, Lala Mollaev, decided in the fall of 2010 to move to New York in order to send R.J. to a Turkish American school, at the recommendation of an Azerbaijani acquaintance.
“Now my kids can speak the language, which is the same family of my Azerbaijani language. Above all this, my son loves the school and it is the first school which he goes, not because he has to, because he wants to. I am proud of him,” she added.
Many non-Turkish families from countries like Bosnia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, India, and Morocco send their kids to Turkish schools because they feel a close connection to Turkish culture including a shared history under the Ottoman Empire. Others send their kids to these schools for the academics and for the “cultural values” they feel public schools lack.
In the New Jersey auditorium, students danced, sang and cheered, but the competition was fierce. Nagihan did not make it to the final round, but R.J. did, crooning with a Ruzgar song, he won first prize for singing in his category.
For some in the audience, the kids on stage at the Olympiad represented a larger progression in Turkish-American relations. Nan A. Canter, who has been traveling to Turkey for the past 40 years, called the event “outstanding.” She said that 40 years ago she would have been shocked to see the Turkish community so welcomed. “If anyone told me there was such an event as the Turkish Olympiads, I would be shocked. When I saw American kids singing, dancing in Turkish I couldn’t help myself but cry.”
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Necla Demirci is a Fi2W education reporting fellow. Her work, and the work of other Fi2W fellows, is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation.