In Turkey’s southeast, years of poverty and conflict has meant few opportunities for Kurds. But a basketball training program is turning out top players who are winning national tournaments and challenging stereotypes.
There's an element of tension pervading Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's Kurdish region. The police and military keep a tight watch on the city, and political demonstrations are common.
The American withdrawal from Iraq has stoked fears of a Kurdish uprising, and the government has stepped up its military presence in the regions bordering Iraq. Most recently, protests broke out in late December after 35 civilians were killed in a botched air strike near the Iraqi border.
Given the conflict, many Kurdish youth feel alienated from the rest of Turkey and they cannot easily escape the poverty of their surroundings, according to experts. But a basketball training program in the neighborhood of Baglar is offering just that.
Success on the court
Inside a squat, faded building, a basketball court catches the reflection of bright fluorescent lights. Kids' shoes squeak as they dribble and practice slam dunks. This gym has produced some top quality players who have caught the attention of national scouts and played in NBA training camps.
"When all these negative events are happening on the one hand, and on the other hand, when our team wins or becomes successful, it creates a big wave of happiness for the families, the players, and the community," said Coach Gokhan Yildrim, who started the program seven years ago.
Yildrim wears a black tracksuit, with a whistle hanging around his neck. Around him, about 30 kids dribble their way through the rough obstacle course he has set up.
During the day, Yildrim is a science teacher at the local school, but basketball has always been his passion. After coaching national-level youth basketball teams in western Turkey for 12 years, he came to Baglar in 2005 and has been training kids since then. There are some 300 boys and girls enrolled in his program this year.
A city of refugees
Diyarbakir resembles a Cold War-era Soviet town; the buildings are gray and a cold winter drizzle has reduced some roads to muddy pits.
Baglar is the poorest and most crowded municipality in Diyarbakir. Nearly 350,000 people live here and most of them are refugees of the longstanding conflict between the Kurdish minority and the Turkish state. In 1984, the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK started an armed struggle for a separate Kurdish homeland and greater representation for Kurds in the constitution. The government retaliated brutally and evacuated thousands of villages in the early 1990s to isolate the PKK fighters.
Many of the displaced villagers settled in Baglar. Emotions in the region can run high during times of political protest, and community ties to the PKK are strong.
"Now we have second and third generations of the people who were forced to migrate," said Ozlem Yasak, a social worker in the city. "The young people and children in Baglar are growing up with very big difficulties of social, economic, cultural and psychological dimensions."
Given the troubled history, few youth can build success stories in Diyarbakir, said Yuksel Baran, mayor of Baglar. The government has not provided much support to alleviate the problems, she added.
"Since the population of Baglar has exceeded 300,000, which is much higher than many cities and counties in Turkey, the investments paid here should have been proportionately higher," she said. "But the truth is that the investments that have been devoted here are much less than expected."
Hope of an escape
Coach Yildrim's voluntary dedication has paid off in recent years. Some of his players have received scholarships to attend top universities in Istanbul and elsewhere. One girl has played on a national basketball team, said Baran.
The program has become a refuge for youth, giving them an opportunity to become part of a community rooted in sportsmanship rather than conflict. It offers children the hope of an escape, said Baran.
"Parents send their kids in the hope that whenever they graduate, the children may get the opportunity to be selected for bigger teams, or get a scholarship from a university," she said.
In 2010, the NBA organized a competition in Turkey to take four teenagers to a training camp in Pennsylvania. Out of 30,000 applicants, Baglar player Serazim Jujuboy won the competition together with three other kids from the rest of Turkey. His success on the court later translated to a scholarship to study economics at Fatih University in Istanbul. At 6 feet 10 inches, he towers over most people around him.
"When I first came here, I had a hard time and faced some discrimination," said Jujuboy. "But with my game, with my basketball, I got them to accept me and it is ok now."
The success of Jujuboy and others like him shows that Kurdish children can succeed given the right opportunities, said Hisyar Ozsoy, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on Kurdish issues. And a lot more needs to be done, he said.
"It requires a lot of individual effort to develop this kind of success story, and I'm sorry to say that it is something that's very very rare," said Ozsoy. "Given the opportunity, they may even go on to the NBA."
Author: Gayathri Vaidyanathan
Editor: Holly Fox