Zeynep Güneş and Ümit Aktaş: “We learnt of our dismissal in lists published on the Internet”

published 14 July 2017 updated 12 September 2017

Zeynep Güneş and Ümit Aktaş arrived in Istanbul this year from Mardin, a town in south-east Turkey. They taught for several years at the primary school there, including during the war and the curfews. Their arrival in Istanbul signalled a new departure, that began with their marriage in Mardin.

Their celebrations with family and friends were marred by the fact that Zeynep had just been suspended from her duties. “All, or almost all, the guests were victims of the purges as well,” explains Ümit.“So, ours was a celebration of resistance. We wore t-shirts with 'Hands off my teacher’ written on them.”

The couple married on 24 September 2016. “I was suspended until December, and then dismissed a few months later, on 7 February, the same day as Ümit,” Zeynep recalls.

Both are still shocked by the way in which they found out about their dismissal. “It was in the evening and we were just at the computer preparing new activities to do with the children,” recalls Ümit. “Suddenly, a friend called us to tell us that new lists of names had just been published. We had a look and our two names were there.”

Nobody has contacted them since, not even the school head teachers. “I didn’t sleep for three days,”recalls Zeynep.The young woman, who explains that she had never had any problems with the authorities or the police, still does not understand why her name appeared on these lists.

As with other colleagues, they took part in the strike on 29 December 2015 “to call a halt to the war, so that the children could go to school”, protests Ümit.  “Is that why we’ve been sacked? If it had to be done again, I would do exactly the same.”

If there is one thing that characterises this young couple, it is their determination. “I’m not saying that I’m hopeful,” says Ümit forcefully. “I’ms u re I will get my job back some day because I am innocent.”

In the meantime, they have become the owners of a small café called “Janya” (a Kurdish word meaning sadness) in the centre of Istanbul. “We often said our dream was to open a small coffee shop with books when we got older,”explains Zeynep,“but I never thought it would happen so quickly. It breaks my heart because I am passionate about my job as a teacher. It’s happened too soon.”

They are not cowed by all this upheaval in their lives. “There are teachers who have been dismissed and who come by to see us at the café. We talk. We are getting ourselves organised to resist and to defend our rights,” says Zeynep.

Helping one another is their way of making their way back to the top of the hill. But they nurse the sweet hope that they will be able to fix a date at the town hall for their civil marriage ceremony. The date? “When we get our jobs back.”