COVID-19 in Turkey, Where are the Students?

Osman Gönülveren and Mert Batur

Around the globe states and institutions are taking strict responses to Covid-19.  Recently, Turkey started taking several measures. These measures are to suspend the activities of various state institutions and to suspend education temporarily. Education was interrupted in primary and secondary schools between March 16-23. Similarly, it was interrupted in higher education too, and as of March 23 distant online education will begin  in all universities instead of face to face education.

After the campuses were shut down, many university students have left the cities they were studying in and returned to their families. Bus stations were intensely busy during this period. Unfortunately, the need to stay away from crowded places and not to create crowds could not be fulfilled. In a situation where COVID-19 tests are not accessible, we hope that these uncontrollable situations do not cause unpredictable results.

On March 15, it was decided to evacuate student dormitories affiliated with the Credit Dormitories Institution (KYK) in Ankara and Konya for the citizens returning from the umrah pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina. Subsequently KYK has further evacuated dormitories for umrah pilgrims in sixteen other provinces including Eskişehir, İstanbul, Ankara, Antalya and Isparta.

At the same time, foundation* university students who did not want to (or can not) leave the city they live and study in, encountered a similar situation. At Sabancı, Özyeğin and Koç Universities, the decision was made to evacuate the dormitories due to the interruption of education. As Civic Space Studies Association, we interviewed some of these students who were forced out of their dormitories  and listened to their experiences.

The dormitories of the foundation universities: “They only look after their prestige, not their students”

In a meeting held at Sabancı University on March 13, students were asked to evacuate the dormitories on Monday, March 16. Taylan**, who lives in Istanbul for their education, says that they do not want to go to stay with their family after leaving their dormitory room. They say that it’s unhealthy to not know if they are carrying the virus. They summarize their situation after leaving the dormitory as follows: “When the university made this decision, I spent a few days on the road.” Taylan, who first stayed in Izmit and then with a friend in Kadıköy, said that the process they lived in indirectly endangered their friends. Taylan continues as follows : “ I think that this practice, which the administration has put us through without rational justification and only to protect the prestige of the school, has actually put a group of students like me into a dangerous situation. ” 

On  March 13,  a mail was sent to students by Özyeğin University with the instruction to evacuate the dormitory rooms by 17:00 on March 16. Özyeğin University student Deniz* stated that they established a Whatsapp group with ÖzÜ students and started a support campaign for students. Deniz states that the university administration will accept the applications of students who cannot leave their rooms in the dormitories for various reasons. However, they add that the conditions under which these applications are  accepted are not transparent. “Although many applications seem to have been accepted, there are also rejected applications, ” says Deniz from Özyeğin University.

Another student we interviewed from Özyeğin University, George, explains the criteria of who can stay in dormitories as follows: “The university administration is asking for evidence from students who want to stay in dormitories. So you have to convince them that you can’t go to your family or that you have nowhere else to stay.”

When we asked how to prove it, George replied: “Generally, students from abroad were allowed to stay.” George is one of the students who continues to stay in ÖzÜ dormitories. They think very positively about the situation for students staying in dormitories: “The university administration organizes activities for students who continue to stay in dormitories, while preserving social distances.” 

The view on KYK dormitories: “Those who return from umrah go to quarantine, students are sent across the country”

On March 15,  government officials started evaluating the issue of whether the returning umrah pilgrims would be quarantined. The solution to this situation, however, put the university students at risk. Those who came from Umrah were placed in student dormitories affiliated with KYK. But what happened in this process showed us that the process was poorly planned. Many students were awakened from their sleep with the announcement made at midnight and they were asked to vacate their rooms in a number of hours.  They were not given a valid official statement and were taken out of their dorm rooms late at night. Students can not return to their dorms as the quarantine is still ongoing for the umrah pilgrims. The situation for students who cannot take some of their belongings from their rooms remains unclear. We met with Mahir*, who stayed at the KYK Mimar Sinan Dormitory in Istanbul. They returned to Sivas with their family after the decision to suspend education. Mahir thinks that he makes a good choice by returning home even if it is risky.

When asked about the news he received from his friends in the dorm, Mahir replied: “Not many students came. The dormitories were already emptied, but they didn’t give the incoming students enough time to pick up their belongings. At first, they were told that they had to vacate their rooms in their previous dormitories at 8:00 am, but then they allowed another four hours. Otherwise, they would have to pick all their belongings up in the morning. ” Mahir explains the situation of the students who stay in the dormitory as follows: “It feels as if the dormitories are abandoned, the cities already look  abandoned. I left Istanbul too, now I’m not leaving home. There are a few students still in the dormitories, and generally they are those who cannot go to their families. ”

Dilan* who was staying at the KYK Şehit Özel HarekatçılarGirls Dormitory  conveys the situation as follows:“Two thousand people were staying in this dorm. An announcement  was made at 3 o’clock in the morning. I was asleep and so I couldn’t hear it completely. I heard something like pack your belongings, this is an emergency. Normally there are  no announcements at that time, so I thought it must be something like an earthquake. But this situation I could never imagine. “  

Dilan states that a second announcement was made  after the first one saying “don’t make it difficult”. Dilan says that they couldn’t pack all of their belongings in the short time they were given.

Dilan explains the situation with the following words: “My clothes, textbooks, notes, and novels stayed in my room. Now if I can’t get them back, -I don’t believe I would get them actually- do I have to buy clothes? It’s not just clothes. I have notes, I have books there.  I have many years of labor in my notes. Who will give my work back to me? ” Emphasizing that they were “expelled” from the dormitory after the announcement, Dilan said that they had nowhere else to go. They stated that they did not want to go to their family and were afraid of the risk of transmitting the virus. Dilan said that a friend had an empty room and they started living there.  “I’m lucky in a way. I could find a place to stay. My family also helps somehow for rent etc. But my spending naturally increased. It is a problem. What about my friends who are in more difficult financial situations? They were thrown into the street. There are some cases  of people being sent to other dormitories, but I did not get clear information about it. ” adds Dilan.

Students in the Kanuni Sultan Süleyman male dormitory in Başakşehir, Istanbul were forced to move to the Mimar Sinan Dormitory in Maltepe on the morning of March 16th. We had an interview with Görkem* who was living  in the Kanuni Sultan Süleyman Dormitory. Görkem conveys their situation as follows: “Like our friends in Ankara and Konya, they took us out of our rooms. They asked us to leave in a limited time. We had friends carrying their belongings with plastic bags. The situation is very bad. ” Görkem says that they are a victim, but they do not  trust the authorities to handle it. Görkem thinks that LGBTI + individuals are never thought of. “I am a LGBTI + individual. They said go back to your family, go home. I don’t see my family. What am I going to do now? It is also very annoying to tell us “Go to your family”. The assumption that everyone is close with their family is ridiculous. ” Görkem adds: “What was said after the students were removed from the dorm rooms is very annoying. They say, ‘take precautions, what more do you want? You complain about everything, would it be better if umrah pilgrims were not quarantined?’ We are not against taking precautions but mistreating other people while taking precautions bothers us. It should not be difficult to solve this situation as planned and scheduled.”

After the interruption of education, Enis*  who is also staying in the same dorm, hurriedly returned to their family. But he is luckier than the students who have to stay because they could return to their family home when they find it convenient, albeit with some difficulty. Enis tells what happened after education was suspended in their university: “Actually, we didn’t expect a break, or at least I wasn’t. Because as far as we were following it, the epidemic had not spread so much yet. One night, after the hasty decision to suspend education I immediately started to look for tickets. All ticketing sites had collapsed, they probably did not expect this decision either. ” Returning to his house on the night of the decision, Enes also reported the status of the bus station: “I bought the ticket from Kadıköy, I could not get it from the internet. It was also crowded, but the largest crowd was at the bus station. All students were waiting in line. There was no precaution anyway, it was a complete crisis situation. Actually, we knew it was risky to go back to our families but we returned to the family house, fearing if there was a curfew or dormitories were closed. Then the dormitories were closed.”

Özlem*,  who is staying at Florya Beşyol female Dormitory, explains the situation with the following words: “They threw us on the street. They said take your belongings away immediately. We were neither able to realize what was happening  nor pack our belongings. Management’s behavior was also very bad. They were scolding us, saying no one was being victimized. I am sure that we will not be able to get the rest of our belongings back. ” Like many students, Özlem complains that the administration’s attitude is not pro-student, but only to pursue their own positions. Özlem expresses her experiences as follows: “We were forced to leave the dormitory for this measure. Nobody thinks about the students. This is not just thinking about students. Many people are leaving, even if a person from the dorm is a carrier, an infection will not be prevented. When they want to manage an emergency, they actually cause a bigger crisis.” It can be seen that these practices harm students. In a situation where it is not known whether the virus is carried or not, there is no valid explanation for the forced removal of students from their homes for preventive purposes. Although it is known that the COVID-19 virus is spreading very quickly, to remove the students from their dorm rooms and send them to other dormitories or ask them to return to their families shows us how unplanned the measures were. After the education was suspended, foundation universities decided to vacate their dormitories. it is a decision that endangers students. Moreover, interrupting education does eliminate the right to housing in dormitories. 

In order to quarantine the umrah pilgrims the removals of students staying at KYK Dormitories have similar features. While it is known that the COVID-19 virus is spreading rapidly, removing students from their dorm rooms also poses a danger. In a similar situation, where valid explanations were not made, students were maltreated. The state institutions should not assume that the students under their protection have other places to stay. The lack of clarification on what happens to the personal belongings of students staying at KYK dormitories increases this mistreatment.The remedy of these violations should be devised as soon as possible so as to not violate the right to education and accommodation. Necessary steps need to be taken such as finding an inclusive solution for students who have been removed from the university and KYK dormitories, solving their problems and making explanations. We hope that the maltreatment and violations will end as soon as possible.

 With solidarity…

* Foundation universities are a type of university which is not publicly owned and run by foundations.
** Names are changed to protect the anonymity of students