Sometimes you are confronted with pleasant surprises that make you think, "Why did I not learn about this before?" Last week, I had such an experience. I had been invited to participate in a panel on democracy, human rights and education at Doga High School in Acarkent. The meeting went fine and I was impressed by the professionalism of the organization. There was, extraordinary for a high school, simultaneous translation and the students were actively involved and very committed. This was no wonder, due to the important role of student representatives in running the school. They even designed their own uniforms and, as I heard later, gave the school its name after the Turkish word for "nature."
On our way to lunch at another Doga school, I learned that this high school was one of seven, and that all belonged to the fastgrowing group of Doga Schools, which includes almost 20 kindergartens and primary schools as well. In Istanbul alone, nearly 10,000 students between the ages of 4 and 18 are studying at one of these schools. When we arrived at Beykoz Doga Primary School, I could not believe my eyes. It looked as if we had entered a national park.
There were green hills, huge vegetable gardens and fruit trees and signs that showed visitors where to go in four languages: Turkish, English, German and Chinese. Was this really a school or some sort of green paradise for multi-linguists? It was a place of learning, we soon found out when we got a guided tour around the premises. I saw a small group of 6-year-olds leaving an open-air classroom, the type I thought only existed in cartoons. In the mini-zoo, a boy explained how he and his classmates were supposed to take care of the dogs. Dutch cows were ruminating lazily and did not respond to my calls in the language that we share. Next to them, two camels were proudly demonstrating their indispensable role in the school curriculum. At lunch, I had the opportunity to talk to Fethi Şimjek, who founded the Doga Schools in 2001. He explained the schools' philosophy, based on a love for nature and the awareness that students have to be prepared for a society based on information and communication in a globalized world. That meant many things at the same time. Starting in the kindergartens, the schools try to develop the environmental consciousness of children who grow up in an urban environment. In looking after the animals and the plants, they learn self discipline, self confidence, solidarity and teamwork. But it also means, from a young age, learning world languages besides their mother tongue. Students are encouraged to go abroad and discuss issues with contemporaries from different cultures and religions.
The school actively supports the EU accession process and even went to Brussels some years ago to discuss its ideas in the European Parliament. I was not surprised to hear that Doga Schools have, for many years now, scored first in Istanbul on the university entrance exams. On the way back, I could not stop smiling. Yes, I know this is a private school where only parents with good incomes can send their children. I also realize that the situation of the vast majority of Turkish students differs radically. And, of course, I should write about the problems at state high schools as well. But it made me so happy to see this privileged part of a new generation in Turkey growing up in harmony with nature and being prepared to be active global citizens. In the midst of Turkey's ongoing struggle with its past and present problems, it is good to know that at least some of the young Turks are learning every day that respect for nature and differences between people is necessary to cope with the challenges of the 21st century.