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Lessons From an American Mom in Turkey

In a summer of unrest, politics pervade the home

It’s been a gruesome summer in Istanbul, with the start of the tourist season marked by a triple suicide attack at Ataturk Airport, followed by the failed military coup of July 15. Turkey is under much criticism for serving as a rear operating base for ISIS and provoking a return to war with Kurdish guerrillas in the southeast. These polices, at the hand of an increasingly authoritarian president, have come home to roost, and Turkish citizens are paying a deadly price. 

I recently returned to the U.S. after living in Turkey since early 2014. Relieved to be stateside, I think often of the parents I met while I was there.

My children were 2 and 4 when we arrived in Istanbul in 2014, and before we met other families, I’d cart them around the city, exploring playground after playground. On weekends, families camped out at the square in front of our house, loading not only food and blankets out of their vans, but also gas-fired teapots boiling Turk chai. While the city’s narrow cobblestone streets were bumper to bumper, a park was always within reach.

I’d never seen such a love of children as in Turkey. In one neighborhood, the mothers working at a community center convinced the governor to cordon off the block and convert it their own version of Sesame Street, complete with CCTV camera loop watched by the staff at the center so stay-home moms could do their shopping while their kids safely played.

Adoration was showered on my daughter and son as well. Walking the street, neighbors offered me blessings and them candy. Even packs of teen boys, putting on badass airs in leather and jeans, stopped to tousle my son’s hair. At their nursery, I fell short of the impossible standard set by Turkish mothers. They had a WhatsApp group where they exchanged as many as 60 messages a day, sharing advice and invitations, and planning gifts for the teachers.

Children were at the heart of everything in Turkey, even politics.

Already the premier since 2003, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erodgan holds a long-term political vision, and children play a prominent role. He encourages women to have at least three, if not five children, and his party gives mothers gold coins and payments of increasing value with each additional newborn. He packs schools with party loyalists that share his emphasis on conservative Islam, ensuring influence over a next generation of voters.

Among the secular Turkish parents that I knew, anxiety steadily mounted about Erdogan’s overreaches and the imposition of religious education in public schools. On a mom’s night out, I learned which families were dual passport holders, and which secular-leaning elementary schools evaded the eye of the Ministry of Education.

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