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The Adolescent Scene

Nikes, Socks, Basketballs, 2015. Acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Copyright Katherine Bernhardt. Courtesy Carl Freedman Gallery.

Dribbling in the Dark

What it’s like to be 14 in a new school, a new city away from home—and the wrong ethnicity in a divided country.

The first day of school did not go well for the girl we’ll call Aida. Not well at all.

Just a few months earlier, Aida—a bright, energetic 14-year-old girl with olive skin and long black hair bouncing behind her back—had managed a perfect score on Turkey’s national high school entrance exam, and this earned her the right to attend the most prestigious private high school in all of Turkey, a country of nearly 80 million people. Her first day, therefore, should’ve been a celebration. She’d made it; she was where she belonged.

But it didn’t take long for Aida to find out just how much she didn’t belong. Most of these 80 million people in her country were ethnically Turkish. Aida, though she looked and sounded Turkish—and held Turkish citizenship—wasn’t Turkish at heart. Aida was a Kurd.

“I didn’t think being Kurdish here would be a big deal,” she told me in a defeated tone. “I mean, where I come from in the southeast of Turkey, there are all kinds of people—Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians. I’m used to people being different.”

What Aida didn’t realize is that, compared to southeast Turkey, where most Kurds live, the rest of Turkey isn’t nearly as accepting of differences.

On her first day at a school that is known to be the most progressive in the country, Aida was excited to meet new people. But she found that once she introduced herself to other girls in the dormitory—some, like her, were hundreds or even a thousand miles from home—they were stymied by her name. It just didn’t quite sound like a Turkish name.

“So what are you?” two girls quizzed her eagerly. “Are you a foreigner?”

This question excited Aida, made her feel a bit exotic. How cool would it be to be a foreigner?

“Yes,” she said right away, “I’m Kurdish!”

The girls stared back at her dumbly—stared at her like she was ugly.

“I thought they’d think it was cool to have diversity on campus,” Aida reflected, now castigating herself for being naïve. Her voice was shaky even though she knew it was OK to speak to me about this; I was a foreign teacher at the school—far removed from the volatile Turkish-Kurdish clash.

“They stared at me for a few seconds and then just walked away,” she continued. “They didn’t say a word—just left me standing there alone.”

This wasn’t her only such experience on the first day. So that night, Aida was trembling on the phone with her mother. She hated the way people looked at her, the way they froze her out if she mentioned being Kurdish. In tears, she wondered aloud if maybe she should come home. As a Kurd, she wasn’t going to be accepted here. She was better off staying home, in a safe place where she wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable.

This was the fall of 2015, though, and both Aida and her mother knew full well that, while she’d likely be discriminated against in Istanbul, what would happen to her at home in Diyarbakır could be far worse. In the fall of 2015, Diyarbakır, like many cities and towns of Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, had turned into a war zone.

 

In high school, Aida’s grandparents and parents started each school day with a pledge of allegiance that included lines like, “My existence shall be dedicated to Turkish existence.”

Kurdish people have long been discriminated against in Turkey—just like in other countries in the Middle East. Though 20 percent of the people left in the Ottoman Empire after World War I were Kurdish, they weren’t given consideration as a separate entity in the new republic of Turkey because, just like ethnic Turks, the Kurds were Muslim. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was seeking to build a modern nation centered on a Turkish identity, so there wasn’t room for diversity. Loyalty to the Turkish state was paramount; in high school, Aida’s grandparents and parents started each school day with a pledge of allegiance that included lines like, “My existence shall be dedicated to Turkish existence,” and “How happy is one who can say, ‘I am a Turk!’”

These lines intended to create patriotic harmony dug into the very souls of a voiceless—and stateless—community. Even the idea of being Kurdish, it seemed, was something the Turkish state wanted to wipe away. Until the 1990s, it was illegal in Turkey for Kurdish to be spoken anywhere—even at home. Singing in Kurdish was crime, giving a child a Kurdish name was a crime—and even referring to someone as a Kurd was prohibited by law. All Turks were Turks as far as the state was concerned, even if not in the eyes of one another.

In conversation, the official term for Kurds was the more disparaging phrase “mountain Turk.” Even using the letters Q, W, and X was against the law because they exist in the Kurdish alphabet, but not in Turkish. (This law lasted until 2013 and had to be changed in part because of the internet. Turks had no choice but to use the letter W to write out web addresses.)

Not surprisingly, many of Turkey’s Kurds felt like they were left with two options: Crawl into a shell like Aida and try not to be Kurdish, or lash out against the oppression. The former led to isolation and insecurity that young girls like Aida typically learn about in high school, while the latter led to guerrilla warfare between the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, and the Turkish state. From 1984 to 2013, some 40,000 lives were lost in battles throughout the country, mostly in the southeast near Aida’s home.

In 2013, a ceasefire, one of the great successes of strongman Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s now-13-year grip on power, offered Kurds some hope. For a people weary of violence and discrimination, maybe there was sunshine ahead.

 

LBJ, 2013. Metallic photographic print. Copyright Robin Layton. Courtesy Winston Wächter Fine Art.

Aida had been raised on this hope since her birth in 2001. There had been violence in the southeast during her childhood, but nothing near the brutality of the 1990s. In the build-up to the 2013 ceasefire, she’d grown up during a relative warming between Turks and Kurds—and in Diyarbakır, she’d spent her whole life in a place where she was free to be Kurdish, and not in danger of being labeled as a “mountain Turk.”

That’s why her experiences on the first day at school in Istanbul were so shocking to her.

Though Aida had always been aware of her minority status, there had been a lot for Kurds in Turkey to celebrate during her lifetime. The 2013 ceasefire led to a lifting of the ban on Kurdish political parties and the creation of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, essentially the Kurdish political party in Turkey. In order to achieve representation in the Turkish parliament, though, a party must receive at least 10 percent of the vote. There were already three powerful political parties in Turkey, so the chances were slim that a fourth party—especially a Kurdish one—could earn 10 percent of the vote.

But then that long shot came through in June 2015.

Just as Aida was acing the high school entrance exam that would bring her more than 800 miles to Istanbul, the Kurdish-led Peoples’ Democratic Party shocked the country by earning 13.1 percent of the vote in the June 7 elections that year. The results caused widespread celebration in the Kurdish community—and even among left-leaning Turks who were proud of how far their country had come. But for Erdoğan, the right-wing president, there was no celebration.

The June 7 elections had been Erdoğan’s chance to transform Turkey’s political sphere into a presidential system, giving him the ultimate power he longed for. But to do it, his Justice and Development Party needed to win half the seats in the election.

In the past, Erdoğan hadn’t worried much about the Kurds as a political force at the ballot box and, in fact, some Kurds even voted for his party because of the softening of relations. But the Kurds had never had a party of their own before. And in June, they turned out with pride to vote for the Peoples’ Democratic Party.

With 13.1 percent of the vote and 80 seats in the parliament, the Kurds effectively drove a dagger into the heart of Erdoğan’s hopes for the presidential system. His party fell well short of a majority, garnering only 40.9 percent of votes. It was a shocking defeat for the man who’d dominated the Turkish political scene like no one since the days of Atatürk.

For 14-year-old Aida, all of this was dizzying—and not because she wasn’t bright enough or mature enough to handle it.

“Everyone here talks about politics,” she told me with a tone of amazement, referring to both her school and to Turkey as a whole. “It’s crazy how much talk of politics there is—especially from people my age. This is really hard for me because I don’t think any of the political parties are good. But here in Turkey, you’re supposed to take a side. And I don’t see what good it would do to take a side.”

Though the election results called for a coalition government to be formed, Erdoğan made it clear that this wasn’t going to happen. He was going to invoke a rule that calls for a new election if a coalition isn’t formed within 90 days.

This was somber news for Kurds and for the secular left in Turkey, but all was not lost. For many, it was difficult to imagine how another election would have different results. It seemed the people had spoken: They wanted the Kurds represented in parliament and they didn’t want Erdoğan’s presidential system. What was going to change to make a new election any different?

 

The school—like most in Turkey—doesn’t keep track of ethnic differences. If a student has a Turkish passport, she’s a Turk. This isn’t up for debate.

By July 2015, Aida was preparing to move to Istanbul to start her new life. She was nervous, but excited. Though her new school would undoubtedly include Kurds like her, she would have no way of knowing who they were. The school—like most in Turkey—doesn’t keep track of ethnic differences. If a student has a Turkish passport, she’s a Turk. This isn’t up for debate. Also, as the start of school drew nearer, there was little debate over the future of the Turkey; there would be no coalition government. New elections would be held in November.

And then in mid-July, the country’s political landscape was completely altered when fighting flared back up between the Turkish army and the PKK.

Across the border in Syria, Kurds had come under attack by the militant group known as Islamic State, and many had fled to Turkey. Many of them also felt that the Turkish government was giving tacit—or perhaps not-so-tacit—support to ISIS because it was worried about the rising power of Kurds in Syria and Turkey. On July 20, an ISIS jihadist blew himself up in the border town of Suruç, killing 33 left-leaning university students who were planning to rebuild Kobani, a Kurdish Syrian border city that had been destroyed in battles with ISIS.

In the days that followed, gunfire broke out between Turkish police and members of the PKK. And on July 24, Erdoğan announced the Turkish army would be starting military operations against both ISIS and the PKK. The irony is that ISIS and the PKK were fighting each other—and now Turkey planned to attack both of them.

Mostly, though, the attacks since that first round of elections have centered on the PKK. The declaration of war against ISIS was done to placate Western powers, but locally the intent was clear: The war with the Kurds was back on.

No one knows exactly what triggered the resumption of violence, but as a political strategy, it was clear. The resumption of the war with the PKK under shaky pretenses was a Wag the Dog moment: In order to win the new election, start a war to create instability so people will rally around the familiar strongman. (The coup attempt in July 2016 also drove up popular support for Erdoğan.)

If life in Turkey had remained the same between June and November, most likely the election results would be the same. But with this re-escalation of the war with the PKK, things had changed drastically.

 

“If I pronounce my name differently, it’s closer to a Turkish name, and it doesn’t sound like a Kurdish name.”

“I’ve learned a lot from that first day of school,” Aida admitted to me with chagrin. “I’ve learned not to be careless, not to let people know who I really am. I mean, it’s not like it’s obvious that I’m Kurdish.”

Based on her appearance, this was 100 percent true. The only thing that was different was her name; her name definitely wasn’t Turkish.

“But if I pronounce my name differently, it’s closer to a Turkish name—and it doesn’t sound like a Kurdish name,” she explained.

So after that first day, she adopted a new pronunciation of her name—and with it, started adopting a new identity.

“You know, I really don’t know how many people here know that I’m Kurdish,” she said. “It’s not something I talk about it with anyone. It’s possible that some people would be OK if they knew, but I don’t know if I’m willing to take this chance.”

Aida had built a wall around herself and did her best not to let anything get inside. This wasn’t easy, though.

“Since most people don’t know I’m a Kurd, you wouldn’t believe the kinds of offensive and racist things they say when I’m around, not realizing who I really am.”

With this, she started fidgeting with her thumbs before clenching both her hands into fists.

“It’s so, so hard not to react,” she continued, her tone escalating. “But my mom keeps telling me—what is the term in English?—to chill out. Yes, I need to chill out.”

She was doing her best to heed her mother’s advice, but admitted that it wasn’t easy. She was leading a double life—the girl she presented to her classmates at school versus the one who called her mother at night in disbelief over the things some of her “friends” said about Kurdish people.

In official school settings, most students wouldn’t typically admit to being prejudiced against Kurds. This was, after all, the most prestigious—and most progressive—school in the country. Generally speaking, in classes or when adults were around, the Kurdish issue didn’t come up. And many students indicated that this wasn’t something they even talked about even amongst their friends. They’d just look at her name and see where she was from and figure it out on their own. In Aida’s case, her name—pronounced the Kurdish way—and the fact that she was from Diyarbakır were two glaring indications that she was Kurdish.

Nearly three-quarters of the school’s students come from Istanbul, so Aida was already in the minority as a residential student who’d left home to attend. Most also were ethnically Turkish, and even those who were Kurdish like Aida, had mostly learned to conceal this fact. As a Kurd from the conservative southeast of Turkey, it was a huge step merely for Aida not to wear a headscarf. But while she wasn’t physically covering herself, she felt the need to disguise her identity from her classmates in other ways.

As the year wore on, Aida became more and more determined to hide her ethnicity—and the new pronunciation of her name was working. She had to focus on her studies and focus on playing basketball—something she’d decided to try and found she loved, even though she’d never played before.

“I know I’m not very good at basketball,” she said humbly, “but I’m getting better. I go to the gym to play anytime I can.”

In a Muslim country that mostly sees the phrase “female athlete” as an oxymoron, the notion of a girl spending her free time going to the gym to play basketball sounded as foreign as Aida’s name.

“Most of the time, I just go to the gym and play by myself,” she continued. “I don’t mind being there by myself. Actually, being there at night by myself is kind of nice.”

Despite her modest self-evaluation of her skills, Aida was a phenomenal athlete. And even though boys at the school were encouraged to play sports, while girls were generally pushed toward more stereotypically feminine pursuits like music, Aida was undeterred. Her long, springy legs gave her a jumping ability that few other girls on the basketball team could match—and, to boot, she was fast. She could fly up and down the court once she learned how to dribble. And she learned how to dribble quickly.

Aida was the youngest member of the girls’ varsity basketball team, and this was something that gave her a great sense of pride.

“I don’t think I actually belong on the varsity team,” she said, once again doubting how much she belonged anywhere, “but I love basketball. I love working hard and getting better at basketball.”

Aida smiled apprehensively, as had become the norm for her, but even in this apprehension, there was plenty of optimism.

 

Aida continued practicing basketball at night in the school’s gym. Right-hand dribbles, left-hand dribbles, crossovers, between-the-legs—she worked tirelessly.

Unfortunately, Aida’s youthful optimism regarding basketball wasn’t representative of the emotions of the Kurdish community that autumn. Since the government had re-started its war with the PKK in July, Turkey’s southeast had been transformed. Military operations were occurring in nearly every Kurdish-dominated city, including Aida’s hometown. People were killed, homes were destroyed, and curfews essentially made people prisoners in their own homes. Many fled to other parts of the country, realizing life in the southeast was doomed. Businesses and schools closed; even without the curfews, it was just too dangerous for people to leave their homes.

On Saturday, Oct. 10, several groups came together with the hopes of ending the bloodshed. A “Labor, Peace, and Democracy” rally was planned in the heart of the Turkish capital, Ankara. The mission behind the protest was simple: Stop the violence.

The protest garnered support from Kurds, labor unions, leftist Turks, and many others who sympathized with the Kurdish cause. It was a peaceful gathering, and protesters held up signs, sang songs, and even danced in a circle to represent their solidarity and their belief that conflicts don’t have to always be settled with violence.

But violence is what they found.

A few minutes after 10 a.m., as young and old were dancing and singing, two suicide bombers detonated their explosives. All told, 103 people were killed and more than 400 were maimed or injured. In an instant, it became the deadliest terror attack on Turkish soil in modern history.

Aida’s father had been at the peace rally.

And right around 10 a.m., he’d needed to use the restroom, so he walked away from the protest to the nearby Ankara train station. From the station restroom, he heard the explosions.

“I don’t, I don’t … even know how to process all of this,” Aida stammered to me two days later.

She’d spent the weekend in her dorm room not sure what to do or say, and then had stumbled her way through classes all day Monday, her mind clearly elsewhere. It wasn’t until Monday afternoon that she felt safe enough to talk about this to anyone—and she only felt comfortable talking to a foreigner.

“I mean, I didn’t even know my dad was at the peace rally, and then my mother calls to tell me not to worry, he’s OK. I just can’t process any of this. My mom says it’s best if I just let this go and not even talk to my dad about it. She says that’s what’s best.”

Selahattin Demirtaş, the leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, lashed out after the bombings, aghast at the contrast between the rigid security presence at Justice and Development Party rallies and the scant presence at the pro-Kurd rally. This second attack on a Kurdish rally raised eyebrows all throughout the country. And once the bombers were identified, the story—and signs of how it could have been easily prevented—became even more tragic: One of the bombers was the brother of the man who bombed the university students in Suruç in July and had openly been talking about his desire to join his brother in martyrdom.

Four days later, the Turkish national football team played a Euro Cup qualifying match against Iceland in the central city of Konya, a stronghold of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. Before the match, the announcer asked for a minute of silence to honor the victims of the Ankara bombing. Silence, though, is not what he received.

Booing and hissing rained down from the stands and then a chant started to gain traction: “100 FEWER VOTES! 100 FEWER VOTES! 100 FEWER VOTES!”

Back in Istanbul, Aida had no idea, but she wasn’t even the only Kurd on the basketball team.

In fact, the other Kurdish basketball player even had relatives at the peace rally when it was attacked, though she had not been as lucky as Aida. The student we’ll call Filya was in her first year just like Aida. Her aunt was killed when the bombs went off. Filya still came to class on Monday, though she was stricken mute by all her emotions—torn apart by what happened and churned up inside because she didn’t feel safe talking about it, didn’t feel safe revealing she was a Kurd. Filya’s guidance counselors advised her to tell her classmates, teachers, and basketball coach that she was sick—she’d caught a cold over the weekend, had a sore throat and couldn’t talk. That would be the safest way to deal with this tragedy.

In the aftermath of the re-ignition of the war in the southeast and the bombing in Ankara, the editors at the quarterly student newspaper were determined that relations between Turks and Kurds needed to be the centerpiece of their issue. But two weeks after the Ankara bombing, the school’s Turkish director firmly slammed the door on the story’s publication. When students from the newspaper went to meet with her about her decision, she was very clear about why this issue didn’t merit space in the paper.

“There are no Kurdish students at this school,” she informed them coolly.

Enraged, the students returned the next day with actual Kurdish students—some of the few who were willing to be speak out about being Kurdish—and they were eager to show her the truth.

Her response, though, came out easily. She told them that, just as Atatürk had decreed, they were all Turks. And how happy is one who can say, “I am a Turk.”

The article was never published.

The results of the Nov. 1 elections–Erdoğan’s second try at getting enough control to make the country’s government into a presidential system–were all-too predictable. With a country now roiling in conflict and the right wing re-energized in its prejudice toward Kurds, the share of the vote won by Erdoğan’s party jumped from the 40.9 percent it earned in June all the way up to 49.5 percent. His Justice and Development Party gained 59 seats, securing the plurality needed to run the country without forming a coalition (though just slightly short of the majority needed to give Erdoğan control of a presidential system). The Kurds’ main party had earned 80 seats in June, but now was down to 59 as a result of the November elections.

For those on the right, this was as it should be—as it always had been. Order—amidst the shelling of Kurdish cities throughout the southeast—had been restored. For those on the left, the June vote was a distant a memory, a whisper of a dream that had been too good to be true.

 

Aida continued practicing basketball at night in the school’s gym. Right-hand dribbles, left-hand dribbles, crossovers, between-the-legs—she worked tirelessly. Then she’d bound toward the hoop, take two long strides, soar upward, and loft layups off the backboard and into the net. She’d repeat the process over and over, determined to get better—alone in the semi-dark gym.

Turkey also seemed to be in a period of semi-darkness. But now that Erdoğan’s party had accomplished its electoral mission, was it necessary to keep fighting the Kurdish militias? Did the violence need to continue?

In the days after the election victory, Erdoğan was resolute, as is his wont. The fighting would not stop until every PKK member—or terrorist, as he would say—was dead.

Every day, more people were being killed in the southeast. And while some of them were PKK members and some were Turkish soldiers and police, many were also civilians. But the official government response was not regret that innocent bystanders had died. The government clearly stated that only militants are targeted by the army. So, when a 13-year-old Kurdish boy and girl were shot dead in Diyarbakir still wearing their middle school uniforms, no investigation was launched. Even the 13-year-olds were labeled as terrorists. A grandmother in Diyarbakir summed up the government’s view on all Kurdish deaths in Turkey succinctly: “They call everyone they kill a terrorist.”

This is a view Erdogan doesn’t hesitate to share in public.

“It’s not only the person who pulls the trigger,” Erdoğan declared, “but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists.”

Tahir Elçi, a prominent Kurdish lawyer, activist, and president of the Diyarbakır Bar Association, became someone who fit Erdoğan’s description.

There had been a groundswell of support for Elçi and for his general message—that the solution to this crisis, which was basically becoming a civil war, lay in talking to the PKK, not fighting with them.

When Elçi dared to say that the PKK was “armed political movement with political demands,” he was arrested for spreading “terrorist propaganda.” He was later allowed out on bail on the provision that he wouldn’t leave the country.

So he returned to Aida’s hometown of Diyarbakır.

For Aida, what was happening to her home was unimaginable.

“Many of my friends in Diyarbakır can’t even go to school right now because of the violence,” she admitted to me. “So their chance at education has pretty much been sliced up.”

Her solemn tone, though, quickly morphed into desperation.

“It just makes me so angry—and I’m sorry if that makes me an angry person—but these people who are dying are innocent!”

Of course, even when expressing her truest emotions—emotions shared by many others—Aida felt the need to apologize.

Tahir Elçi, however, wasn’t apologizing. In late November, in the middle of a press conference in Diyarbakır’s old city center, as he was speaking about the need for dialogue instead of fighting, the need for peace instead of war, gunfire broke out.

Elçi was shot in the head. He died instantly.

Though the assassination was captured on videotape, no one has ever been arrested. State-run media dubiously declared that the PKK itself had assassinated Elçi.

In the following days, Kurds gathered in several major Turkish cities to protest Elçi’s assassination, calling it yet another marker of their sad fate in Turkey. They chanted in unison, “You can’t kill us all.”

Back at school, Aida had trouble stomaching any of this. While she was supposed to be focusing on exams to end the first semester, she walked around the halls with her head down, not even wanting to make eye contact with anyone. Even though this death was simply added to the many Kurdish deaths in the last six months, this one hit home even more: Tahir Elçi’s daughter was a student at the school.

The school had no official response to the assassination of one of its students’ parents, though this did not come as a surprise. In fact, teachers were warned about discussing the shooting in class. There was a belief amongst Turks and some expats who’d been in Turkey for a long time that many in the student body would be happy Elçi had been killed.

 

As Erdoğan moved politically, Aida and Filya started to find each other. Aida was on the varsity team, while Filya was a member of the JV, but the teams routinely practiced together.

As the first semester of school ended in January, the violence in the southeast showed no signs of abating. Hundreds of thousands had been displaced and nearly 1,000 people had been killed. During the semester break from school, many of Aida’s classmates were off jet-setting to European capitals to soak up culture or spending their time cruising down ski slopes in the Alps. Aida, however, flew home to a civil war. She was eager to be with her family but wary of what could happen if she ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“I’m managing,” Aida said.“I’m learning how to manage all of this.”

When she returned from her break, she spent more and more of her nights and weekends playing basketball alone in the gym.

In the spring, students and teachers worked together on the school’s first-ever Diversity Week. At the beginning of Diversity Week, however, the school’s Turkish director cancelled a previously approved Kurdish language after-school club. This infuriated Kurds who thought not only that their voices would perhaps be heard, but also that they might to be heard in their own language.

As part of Diversity Week, a series of posters around the school asked probing questions about things like ethnicity, gender equality, gender identity, homosexuality and physical disabilities. One poster in particular, though, drew the most attention: Why don’t we have a Kurdish language class? it read.

On the second day of Diversity Week, this poster was covered up by another, much larger poster. How happy is one who can say, “I am a Turk,” it read. Kurdish students tore this poster down and printed a new language class poster to hang up the next day. And the next day, the same thing happened again. By Thursday, the Kurdish poster was either being defaced or covered up with such regularity that Kurdish students decided to guard it round-the-clock—and even ditched classes so the poster would not be left unattended.

If nothing else, this provoked all kinds of discussion and debate amongst students—much-needed discussion about a topic that had been long kept underground. For so long, Aida felt like an invisible Kurd. Now, at least—even in the debate—the veil of invisibility was being lifted. It turned out there were many at the school who supported the Kurdish cause, though there was hardly a sense of unity about it. A refrain that was said politely, but was intended otherwise, was: If you’re Kurdish, then this means you’re both Kurdish and Turkish. And that means you can choose one or the other. So why wouldn’t you just pick Turkish?

In the meantime, Erdoğan showed no signs of easing his attack on Kurdish politicians. Any support—however tacit it might be—for the Kurdish cause, he deemed an act of terrorism. In May, he stripped prosecutorial immunity from members of parliament, a move that had clear motives: Some 50 of the 59 Kurdish members of parliament would be arrested on charges of terrorism for having spoken out in support of the Kurdish cause. These lawmakers would be sent to jail, basically ending Kurdish representation in parliament. Analysts predicted this would lead to increased violence between Kurds and Turks. By moving the Kurds out in exchange for what he hoped would be members of his party, Erdoğan would be able to get the votes he needed to change the constitution to a presidential system, giving him the power and control he desired.

As Erdoğan moved politically, Aida and Filya started to find each other. Aida was on the varsity team, while Filya was a member of the JV, but the teams routinely practiced together. And it was becoming clear they had a bond that encompassed basketball and much more. In April, the two girls started sticking around together after practice, finding an open hoop and working on fundamentals. The better athlete, with skills honed by all her extra practice, Aida took on the role of coach, teaching Filya how to dribble twice and then one-step, two-step into a layup. For Filya, who had first started playing basketball that fall, this was a significant challenge.

But Aida was a patient teacher and willing to run through the sequence over and over again—even as Filya continued to flub layup attempt after layup attempt. Even though it was near the end of the basketball season, Aida didn’t grow frustrated with Filya’s struggles. The past year had taught her plenty about struggling and determination.

One afternoon in May after practice, with Aida’s encouragement, Filya slowed down her movements and focused on the rhythm of the dribbling and the steps. As Filya bounced the ball confidently, took two long strides and went up with her right hand to kiss the ball off the glass, Aida watched as the ball came swooshing down through the hoop.

Filya looked up in amazement, and Aida beamed with joy. Their eyes connected and they instinctively lunged toward each other and embraced.

It was a just a layup, but after the year they’d experienced, something as small as a layup was certainly worth celebrating. 

Andrew W. Jones is the author of Two Seasons in the Bubble: Living and Coaching Basketball in Bulgaria. He’s the recipient of the Norman Mailer Writing Award for High School Teachers, and currently lives, teaches, and writes in Brasilia. More by Andrew W. Jones