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February 16, 2000
Concrete crunches under my feet as I walk through this empty lot. Twisted metal rods reach in contorted shapes from the rubble. I look up to see buildings slumping toward the ground, as if gravity reached up and grabbed an edge of the roof and begun to pull insistently until resistance was futile. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.
In some ways that is what happened here, but the hand of gravity was not the only one that brought these buildings tumbling to earth. In August 1999, the Earth groaned and shook for forty-five seconds; seconds that seemed to last an eternity. In less than a minute, thousands of people were killed, hundreds of thousands were injured or left homeless, and sixty thousand buildings were destroyed or damaged as the land beneath them trembled and shuddered. Some people lost their homes, some lost their friends, and some lost their families.
Disasters create an instant vacuum. With no warning, pressing needs suddenly arise--the need for rescue efforts, first aid, shelter, food, clothing, concerns for sanitary conditions, and the myriad psychological needs created by such sudden and unexpected catastrophe. This lot littered with concrete and twisted metal is a reminder of that sudden trauma, and here in the town of Adapazari these types of reminders are everywhere.
We are in Adapazari today to visit the students of Mithat Pasha High School; to see them, though, we must go to a neighboring school called Ataturk Lisesi because Mithat Pasha no longer exists. It was destroyed in the earthquake. Three schools now share the halls of Ataturk Lisesi on a rotating basis. In the meantime, efforts are underway to construct a new school through the support of Mercy Corps International (see Sidebar).
Before meeting the students we chat with several teachers over cups of steaming tea. They explain that three groups of students have been sharing this building since October, but, as a result of aftershocks that shook the region in September and October, regular classes did not resume until December 27th. This series of quakes decimated the school population. Only twenty-four of fifty-seven teachers remain and enrollment has plunged from 1800 to the current 900 students. Some moved to other cities, some perished in the quake, and some are too frightened to return. Fear looms as the predominant challenge for those who do return. Many students are scared to remain inside a building for any extended period of time, and as a result they have trouble concentrating on their coursework.
"WHAT coursework?", I wonder as we enter the classroom. Thirty students sit at empty desks. There is not a single textbook in sight. I move to write our names on the chalkboard but find no chalk. And where is the teacher? There is no teacher visible except for our host, who introduces us.
The students stand to greet us as we enter the room, and I suddenly feel like a foreign ambassador walking onto the floor of Congress. "All rise...." In a matter of minutes a throng forms around Kavitha as she passes around notebook collecting e-mail addresses. They are eager to share their feelings about life here in Adapazari. Several speak English, and we are soon entwined in a lively jumble of conversation. It becomes clear that the earthquake has created a rift in their education that all would like to repair, but resuming life as it was before the quake has proven to be impossible.
Their frustration with the school is evident. The repercussions of this tragedy run deep, and it seems that the school system itself is still in a state of shock. Struggling to retain teachers and organize an effective way to support three schools under one roof, the school is not yet capable of providing an open forum for the concerns of the students. The students express fear of police action if they voice their dissatisfaction. And with just cause--two students from the town of Duzce, where a second earthquake hit in November, were arrested just one week before our visit when they displayed a homemade sign demanding teachers and a school for themselves.
An e-mail that I received from one of the students several days after our visit echoed the sentiments of the class. Here is an edited excerpt:
I'm 17 years old and I go to MITHAT PASHA HIGH SCHOOL. I live in Adapazari after the earthquake and we haven't got a school, teacher etc. We would like a school and teachers. We have a lot of education problems. After the earthquake we are very unhappy. We haven't got a home. We lived in the tents after (the earthquake) then began to live in pre-fabricated houses. We live very unhealthily. In the winter it is very cold. We aren't studying...... education is very difficult and we take an exam to go to university...
The past now threatens dreams of the future. In order to continue to the university level, all students must take a comprehensive exam. The exam score is the primary means of evaluation for admission into a university. Students study extensively for this exam, but when the earthquake struck in August they had only completed a portion of private lessons designed to prepare them. By the time regular classes resumed in December, they had lost several months of valuable preparation time and lagged far behind their peers in the rest of the country. They now attend school six days a week in an effort to make up for this lost time, but it often feels as if too much time has slipped away already.
Where does progress begin in this situation? Plans are underway to erect a huge sports complex in the city that will provide a safe space for youth to gather and participate in a wide variety of activities. But are sports the answer when there are no teachers in the classroom and student concerns are silenced?
There are no easy answers. Clear solutions have been buried in the aftermath of this tragedy. Nearly every person in Adapazari knows someone who perished in the quake. Students and teachers alike must grieve their losses and move forward to the best of their ability. A seventeen-year old asks if I have ever been in an earthquake. No, I have never been in an earthquake, and I can scarcely fathom the experience.
The Talmud says, "We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are." I can see the results of this quake everywhere I look, from the cracks in the walls to the eyes of these people, but I will never experience the quake itself. I am not an earthquake survivor. The problems in the school and the lack of communication between teachers and students must be addressed; they are elements in a collective effort of healing and recovery. Are these difficulties a result of the quake or a legacy of educational conflict? Will these students fulfill their dreams of entering universities? Once again, the answers are not clear. The vacuum created by this disaster has yet to be filled, and the healing process continues.
p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...firstname.lastname@example.org
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