Meet the 12-Year-Old Girl Who Risked Prison to Revive Her People's Language

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The Turkish government recently lifted a decades-old ban on speaking Kurdish in schools, but a young Kurdish girl fighting for full rights says they still have a long way to go.

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Medya Ormek teaches Kurdish in her classroom, a renovated chicken coop on the roof of her family's home. (Jenna Krajeski)

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey -- On a hot day in mid-June, 12-year-old Medya Ormek and her family gathered together, sitting on pallets or plastic lawn chairs, to watch Kurdish news and music videos on a small television. To cope with the temperature, they have moved the contents of their sitting room into the shady entrance to their three-story Diyarbakir home, where a breeze from the open door and the rickety ceiling fan make the midday bearable. One of Medya's sisters serves hot tea and the conversation turns, as it always seems to in this urban heart of Turkey's Kurdish southeast, to politics. That day, they were discussing the recent announcement by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that schools in Turkey would now offer the once-banned Kurdish language as an optional lesson. In the media, it was heralded as an "historic step," but Medya and her family disagreed.

"There are 20 million people in north Kurdistan. An optional lesson is shameful," said Medya's father. "And I don't trust Erdogan, I think that he is lying." Only time will tell if his suspicions are borne out, but this family has good reason to worry about the government. Young Medya has been on the front lines of the Kurdish struggle to revitalize their language, long restricted in Turkey, teaching classes in her home at great risk to both herself and her family.

Since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Kurds who refuse to assimilate have been alienated from Turkish society and politics. The existence of the Kurdish minority, which makes up 20% of the country's population, is not acknowledged in the Turkish constitution. In the early 1980s, the Kurdistan Worker's Party or PKK (which Turkey, the EU, and the U.S. all classify as a terrorist organization) took up arms in the mountains of Turkey and Iraq. Though that violent struggle has come to embody the Kurdish issue in Turkey, to most Kurds language remains at the heart of the dispute. Speaking Kurdish was illegal in Turkey until 1991 and, until Erdogan's announcement, was still illegal in Turkish schools, part of a larger effort to downplay Kurdish culture and discourage the Kurdish separatist movement. Many Kurds, defying the ban, have had to either flee to the mountains or languish in prison. For them, the right to speak Kurdish is about more than just language. Turkish Kurds draw the borders of their long-sought Kurdish nation with language. Every word of Kurdish is a protest.

Erdogan's announcement carried particular significance for Medya and her family. Like many residents of Diyarbakir, the Turkish government had forced them to leave their village and move to the city, where they speak primarily Kurdish. But Medya -- a tall, dark-haired girl with a wry giggle -- is decidedly uncommon. Before she turned 11, she had become both a local media darling and the target of a police investigation, all for teaching Kurdish.

"My first day of school was very scary," Medya said. She didn't speak a work of Turkish and was forbidden from communicating in Kurdish. "I would cry every day." She didn't understand why she was being punished for speaking the language she'd always heard at home, and felt dismay at not being able to communicate with friends who had forgotten, or never been taught, their native Kurdish. She worried about failing the Turkish-taught classes and about being punished by her Turkish-speaking teachers.

Medya decided that she would rather be thought defiant than stupid. So, one day, she invited some friends over to play.

"I told them we would play with dolls and speak Kurdish," she told me as we sat in her classroom, a renovated chicken coop on the roof of her family home, which she nicknamed "Cigerxwin classroom" after the Kurdish poet. On the front wall is a white board, where Medya writes Kurdish vocabulary, as well as photographs of family and friends -- some, like Medya's older brother, lost to the ranks of the PKK and others, like Medya's namesake, former political prisoners -- and local artwork, some sent to her by admiring dissidents. In Medya's classroom, Turkish was banned.

Four friends showed up for that first lesson, but as word spread -- and some local reporters caught wind -- Medya's class grew. At one time, she was cramming 27 regular students into the small room, showing videos, critiquing their writing, and listing vocabulary. She even got her certificate in a teaching program because "I wanted to be on a more academic level." In class she was, by far, the youngest student. Locals were initially discouraging. "At first they put me down, saying that I should play instead of going to a classroom," she said. "Yeah, I wanted to play, but I had other things on my mind. They got used to me."

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Jenna Krajeski is a journalist based in Istanbul. Her previous work has appeared in  Al-Masry Al-Youm, The New Yorker, Slate, The World Policy Journal, Bidoun, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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