University students in Turkey are bearing the brunt of the earthquake

Screenshot from the news report about protests organized by university students against the decision to switch to distant learning.

Two weeks since Turkey was first struck by a devastating series of earthquakes on February 6, the backlash over the state’s inadequate response in the aftermath is still growing. One of the latest criticisms against the state was its decision to open all state-run student dormitories to the earthquake evacuees and switch to online education at universities across the country. Since then, #onlineegitimistemiyoruz (we do not want to switch to online education) has been trending on social media while students have organized protests outside the universities. Scores of academic staff and students voiced their concern about this decision, while university students living in dorms across the country shared stories of chaos at the dorms, as they were ordered to pack and leave with little notice.

In a video shared by the group BogaziciDirenisi (Bogazici Resistance) on YouTube, the group listed all the reasons why the decision to remove students from dorms was not the right policy:

The capacity of barely sufficient state run student dorms is just 800,000, while the capacity of hotels across the country is 2 million. It is not a solution to relocate earthquake survivors into state dormitories which can barely provide suitable housing and meet the needs of the rescues anyway. Especially not when, hotels, guest houses, hundreds of thousands of empty properties held by real estate companies are left untouched.

Others have said the dorms have deteriorated into chaos since the decision to vacate the dorms was announced. In an interview with a local news platform Arti Gercek, Ozlem [not the student's real name], a university student studying in Adana, and whose family was affected by the earthquake, said she was in Gaziantep with her family when she received a notice from the student dorm she was living in, informing her she had two days to vacate her room. Ozlem rushed back to her dorm in Adana, only to find her room was already cleared out, and her belongings were stuffed in unlabelled trash bags and placed in a storage room. It took her several hours to go through all the bags before she found her things.

In Kırıkkale, another province, students at the all-women dormitory reported their lockers had been broken into, and all their personal belongings stuffed in trash bags. They were notified that they must all vacate, reported Turkish online newspaper Gazete Duvar.

[this is] Kırıkkale Hatice Hanım All Women State Dorm. The girls’ lockers have been broken into, while their personal items were stuffed in trash bags. You are kicking the earthquake victims and the students in their teeth. [Instead] Open your hotels, palaces, empty houses! You can't kick us out of our dorms!

The Movement of the Unsheltered, which was launched by a group of students in 2021 amidst a student housing crisis, was quick to organize and share updates from dorms across the country, where students were kicked out with either no notice at all or with short notice. Many students were already away spending the semester break with their families. Some of these students were from provinces affected by the earthquake. In one tweet, the group said, “Students won't bear the brunt for the responsibilities you did not take.”

Another university student from Istanbul staying in state dorms told Evrensel newspaper, the head of the dormitory told her not to cause trouble when she asked where she should go on such short notice.

A return to online education

In the same statement that President Erdoğan announced the decision about state dorms, he also said that all university students will continue the remainder of the academic year online. Students, academics, and opposition politicians all criticized the move.

In an interview with Arti Gercek, Ozlem, who was kicked out of her dorm in Adana, said, “they talk of online education, but we have no equipment and from time to time no power or internet connection. At this point, we don’t even have our books. I don’t know how we will access them. How will I participate in online education under these conditions? How will I gain anything from it?”

Another student asked on Twitter why education was the first thing to go:

Why the first thing to go was education? With what kind of infrastructure are we switching to online education? hundreds of hotels stand empty, why won't you open them up to victims of the earthquake? how effective is it going to be to house victims of the earthquake in tiny dorm rooms? what do you want from us?

The leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, agreed. Speaking from Hatay — one of the badly hit provinces — Kılıçdaroğlu said the student dorms were not suitable, instead urging the state to open hotels and cover the costs of all evacuees left without their homes. Kılıçdaroğlu also said in a tweet:

I am ready to open our party headquarters as well as all the party venues to the victims of the earthquake. This also includes our private homes. Let us not touch our youth this time. They are the only ones we are left with.

The leader of another political party DEVA, Ali Babacan, echoed the sentiment in a tweet, calling on the state not to “take away a generation’s right to education.”

According to clinical psychologist Beyhan Budak, the decision to switch to distance learning must be revised. “While the psychological impact caused by the pandemic have not disappeared yet, switching to online education can seriously damage the mental health and education of our youth,” tweeted Budak.

A member of the opposition Republican People's Party, Tahsin Tarhan, tweeted that the decision to switch to distance learning was “insanity” and “must be reverted immediately.”

A plea from another university student summed up the circumstances well:

Please don't switch to online education. You can extend the school for as long as you want but I simply don't want to study the last year of my school, in my destroyed city, living in a tent. My student identity is probably the only thing that can make me happy right now. Please don't take that away from me.

Meanwhile, the decision to switch to online education did not impact the Religious Affairs Directorate, or Diyanet, Turkey's main religious body responsible for coordinating most of the religious activity for the country's Muslims — including, overseeing state-run mosques, appointing imams, circulating weekly sermons ahead of Friday noon prayers, offering Koranic courses, and arranging pilgrimage trips to Mecca, among other duties. According to reporting by Cumhuriyet newspaper, boarding and daily Koran courses resumed in-person classes on February 20.

In addition, the institution has come under fire for issuing a fatwa on February 18, in which it claimed there was “no obstacle for foster families to marry the adopted earthquake-survivor children,” meaning foster parents can legally marry their “adopted children.” Following negative reactions, Diyanet removed the page from its website and issued a statement in which it claimed, the fatwa was taken out of context. On January 5, the institution issued another controversial fatwa in which it claimed, “unless women are accompanied by their sons or husbands, it is inappropriate that they travel alone for a distance further than 90km.”

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