What’s On

Turkey’s targeted teachers find refuge in Vietnam

By Calvin Godfrey   January 16, 2017 | 09:14 am GMT+7

'I’m happy in Vietnam; this is a peaceful country.'

This summer, Dursun Yildirim found himself jobless for the first time in a long time.

Seated beneath a large portrait of Ho Chi Minh in a pink cotton Oxford, the veteran school principal stroked his square jaw and sipped a cup of red tea.

Outside, a December sun shined on the technicolor-painted campus of the Horizon International Bilingual School—a kindergarten to grade-12 private academy set in an overgrown corner of Ho Chi Minh City’s tawny Thao Dien Ward.

The campus had emptied ahead of Christmas break, creating a silence that allowed bird song to fill the Turkish principal’s office.

“I don’t want to go back to Turkey right now,” he said. “I’m happy in Vietnam; this is a peaceful country.”

In the weeks that followed, bombers attacked an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve following the daylight assassination of the Russian Ambassador—killings both associated with the bloody war raging on the Syrian border.

None of those things had happened when Yildirim met with VnExpress International in December. He wasn’t relieved to have escaped terrorist violence so much as a bizarre political campaign that cost him his job and his livelihood.

Vietnam feels like an odd refuge for those who put their faith in one of Turkey’s most controversial political figures—a man who preaches peace, but has been accused of fomenting war. For Yildirim and others like him, however, it may prove the safest place in the world.

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan take a selfie with an armored vehicle in front of Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. Photo by Reuters

Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan take a selfie with an armored vehicle in front of Ataturk Airport in Istanbul, Turkey July 16, 2016. Photo by Reuters

On July 15, gun battles erupted between police and military officers on major highways in Istanbul, sending shocked civilians fleeing.

Within hours, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came on television and announced that a small faction of the Turkish military had directed tanks and helicopters against the state. Having crushed the plot against him, he called on the U.S. to hand over Fethullah Gulen—a former ally turned enemy.

Gulen had drawn legions of followers into a movement known as Hizmet--one that exhorted followers to join businesses, newspapers, schools and hospitals organized around a strong notion of service. Fans described its members as lifelong members of something like an Islamic Peace Corps; critics questioned its ultimate motive and finances, which remain difficult to divine. Three years ago, some of those followers began openly criticizing Erdoğan’s supporters, including his son.

This summer, the President accused Gulen of having orchestrated and financed the coup from a cushioned chair in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania—about an hour outside New York City.

The U.S. demanded proof that the septuagenarian advocate of nonviolence had orchestrated a sloppy plot that left somewhere between 260 and 300 Turks dead.

Instead, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency.

He fired and arrested huge swaths of the public sector and closed over 1,000 private schools and 15 universities in Turkey along with newspapers, medical facilities and businesses believed to have links to what he described as a Gulenist “deep state.”

For months, the U.S. government balked at the suggestion.

Then Donald Trump’s chosen security advisor loudly called for the old man’s immediate extradition.

Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, notorious for his fascist approach to Islam, described the old man as tantamount to Osama Bin Laden.

“Gulen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist,” Flynn wrote in an Op-Ed for The Hill. “He has publicly boasted about his ‘soldiers’ waiting for his orders to do whatever he directs them to do.”

Should Trump choose to listen, Gulen and his supporters could find themselves targeted by the U.S. and its allies within weeks.

Demonstrators display signs during a protest against the suspension of teachers from classrooms over purported terrorism links in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on September 19, 2016. The signs read: Do not touch my teacher (L), and We are here for an honorable life. Photo by Reuters

Demonstrators display signs during a protest against the suspension of teachers from classrooms over purported terrorism links in Diyarbakir, Turkey, on September 19, 2016. The signs read: 'Do not touch my teacher' (L), and 'We are here for an honorable life'. Photo by Reuters

Dursun Yildirim was among the school principals Erdoğan’s crackdown put out of work.

The government appropriated his campus, he says, and handed it to a rival education company.

Most of his contemporaries found themselves in a similar spot; others ended up in jail.

“I contacted a friend in Hanoi and asked if there was a position for me,” he said.

Yildirim now oversees 300 mostly-Vietnamese students at Horizon’s Ho Chi Minh City campus.

He denied that he and his two Turkish vice principals worked in coordination with Gulen, whom they described as a source of inspiration.

“Everyone here knows who he is,” he said, while stressing that Gulen himself has no involvement in the school’s operations.

Stepping out of his office, Yildirim offered a brief tour of the campus cobbled from three adjoining villas. He crossed a paved courtyard shaded by a parachute, past an enclosed basketball court and soccer pitch toward classrooms decked out with smart boards and Apple computers.

Horizon follows Vietnam’s national curriculum, which it teaches in both English and Vietnamese. Graduates take the national college entrance exam and leave with a diploma stamped by the Ministry of Education and Training.

“That's the big advantage, if they want to go to Vietnamese university, they can,” Yildirim said. “If they want to study abroad, they can.”

Unlike other international schools, students who don’t like Horizon can simply transfer back into the public school system.

Every Monday, students gather to sing the Vietnamese national anthem and salute Vietnam’s crimson flag with a single gold star at the center.

Half the teachers, they said, were hired out of Ho Chi Minh City’s top public schools.

“We cannot say this is a Turkish school,” Yildirim said gesturing at a stack of personnel binders with staff photos glued to their spines. “Some of our teachers are from New Zealand, South Africa, England and the Philippines.”

In early December, the international crew released a music video set to the tune of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas.”

In many ways, the Horizon Bilingual International School seems inseparable either from Turkey or its recent history.

Horizon got its start in Vietnam when a cherubic entrepreneur named Ali Kutlu co-founded Tun Company Limited in 2005 with a woman in Hanoi named Huynh Thi Tuyet Van.

Horizon’s first campus on Hanoi’s West Lake blossomed, while a language program in downtown Ho Chi Minh City developed into the sprawling District 2 campus where Yildirim now works.

Van told VnExpress International that any suggestion Horizon has ties to Gulen “does not reflect the reality.”

Kutlu proved harder to reach.

After spending nearly a decade in Vietnam, he abruptly sold his stake in Tun and moved to Kenya where he served as the director of Ebru Africa TV.

Kutlu now serves as the Vice President of the Everest Production Company in New Jersey, a known subsidiary of the Istanbul-based Samanyolu TV, whose general director was arrested in Turkey 2014.

Pro-Erdoğan blogs have painted the station as a “spying base.”

No one picked up the phone at any of the office’s extensions during calls made during business hours.

Kutlu declined to comment on his Horizon days.

“It was a long time ago,” he wrote in a brief LinkedIn message. “I don’t want to talk about that.”

Indeed, Kutlu’s time in Hanoi feels like a whole other era in Turkish-Vietnam relations.

In 2012, Turkey’s then-Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç flew to Hanoi to spend Tet in the capital. The mustachioed senior statesman shook hands with a large block of Vietnamese officials before cutting a ribbon at Horizon, which had been operating for six years.

Following a dragon dance, Arınç told reporters that the school would build “a bridge of friendship” between the two countries.

Now, none of the school’s promotional materials even mention Turkey, and Arınç has largely vanished.

Bill Park, a senior lecturer and Turkish Foreign Policy specialist at King’s College in London says a Turkish prosecutor put Arınç on a list of parliamentarians under investigation for ties to a “terrorist organization” last August.

“Ankara is putting pressure on all governments, everywhere to close Gulenist schools and networks, including in Western Europe,” Park wrote via email. “They are meeting with some success in those parts of the world where they have economic, political, ideological, cultural clout - the Balkans, Caucasus, central Asia etc.”

In the messy wake of the coup, Erdoğan convinced the governments of Sudan and Somalia to shutter a network of schools established with Turkish Aid, calling them “nests of terrorism.”

The government of Pakistan agreed to deport 450 Turkish citizens (teachers and their families) working at 20 schools.

These demands proved a tougher sell in Southeast Asia.

Indonesia’s education minister decided not to close nine schools allegedly linked to Gulen, telling the BBC that Turkey’s allegations the schools had terrorist ties were “not true.”

Turkey's Ambassador to Cambodia called a press conference to demand Lord Prime Minister and Supreme Military Commander Hun Sen close primary, secondary and university campus all run under the banner Zaman International School.

The Phnom Penh Post quoted the ambassador as complaining that the Turks had repeatedly lobbied high-level government officials to no avail.

Zaman’s principal responded by calling a counter press conference attended by Cambodian parents with children in the schools. Waving Zaman’s business license in the air, its principal declared himself as shocked and disgusted with the failed coup as anyone.

Targeting international schools in the wake of a coup seems like a pretty poor national security strategy and most of the world's readers were left to scratch their heads about what Erdoğan could possibly be on about.

His government has spared no expense in trying to offer some rationale for the campaign.

“All of these schools are to some extent fronts for a global criminal organization that moves money all over the world to subvert democratic principles and advance the interest of a very small cult within it,” said attorney Robert Amsterdam—the heavy-hitting Canadian lawyer who has largely led the fight against a massive network of charter schools operated and staffed by Gulen’s alleged adherents.

“It is very possible that the majority of individuals who attend or participate in these schools may not even know what’s going on among the Turkish teachers and that some of the Turkish teachers may not even be aware, but all of the managers of these schools are generally administrators involved in the cult.”

Amsterdam claimed he had received a whistleblower complaint about the Horizon schools in Vietnam and never did.

Gulen himself has repeatedly denied having any ties, whatsoever, to the schools opened by people who ascribe to his philosophy of education.

Huynh Thi Tuyet Van, the founder of Horizon International Bilingual Schools, called Amsterdam’s claims “outrageous.” She noted that less than ten percent of Horizon’s staff is Turkish and that the school has undergone “regular rigorous inspections every term of the academic year by various authorities.”

At various points, the FBI has investigated Turkish charter schools in the U.S, principally for their alleged use of taxpayer funds to award contracts and work visas to Turkish friends and familiars.

A man with a heavy Turkish accent who answered the phone at the embassy in Hanoi remained non-committal about Horizon International Bilingual School.

“We don’t know who they are,” he said. “We don’t know what they do.”

Nguyen Thi Bach Kim, the Vietnamese vice principal who has worked with Horizon since its inception dismissed all suggestions of impropriety.

“The Ministry of Education and Training heard about the news from Turkey,” she told VnExpress International. “But they said that our school follows the regulations well.”

Yildirim and two other Turkish administrators laughed at the suggestion that they were forced to give up any portion of their salary.

“How can I believe that I will get my salary and pay some money back to the school?” Yildirim asked.

All three administrators say the campus is funded entirely by tuition, which they declined to reveal.

According to a 2015 fee schedule circulating online, however, Horizon tuition maxes out at roughly $6,700 per year for a high-school senior—less than half the cost at the nearby British International School.

The men said they know and trust each other, but do not belong to a transnational organization.

“Everyone is saying ‘you are this kind of organization',” he said. “We are working under the law.”

The principal claims the staff at his own embassy has treated his co-workers in a bizarre and suspicious manner.

“[The Turkish Embassy] is not doing anything for us right now,” he said. “One of our teachers had a baby and they won't issue the child a passport. Even though they have completed all the documents and still they don't do it. The baby is 20 days old!”

An official at Turkey’s embassy in Hanoi declined to respond.

“We are not in a position to comment on this matter,” he said over the telephone.

Before VnExpress International left the Horizon campus, Yildirim and his vice principals handed a reporter a blue glass Nazar amulet featuring a lanyard that spelled out the word Turkey.

“It’s a traditional gift that helps protect you from those who look badly upon you,” they said.

Related news:

Obama urges rule of law in Turkey, U.S. warns of damage to relations

Control across Turkey restored but some coup plotters at large