‘We won’t be scared away’: Why two Irish teachers are staying in Turkey
‘Our jobs are secure here, which was something we never felt at home’
Cathal Mahon and Helen Vickers in Istanbul: ‘After the first bombings happened last year, I was very skittish about being here, but now I find it easier. Day-to-day I don’t feel threatened.’
While Turkey could well be perceived as dangerous and unstable right now, two Irish teachers from Co Kildare, 27-seven-year Cathal Mahon and his girlfriend 25-year-old Helen Vickers, say they are determined to still call it home.
A suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish wedding party near the border with Syria on Saturday, killing 54 people, 22 of whom were children, in the deadliest attack in Turkey so far this year.
It is just over a month since the country experienced an attempted coup. Tanks rolled into Istanbul’s main International Airport, the city’s two iconic bridges linking Europe and Asia were shut by soldiers, and parts of the capital Ankara were taken over by the army. The president appeared on national television from a resort in the south of the country, addressing 80 million people using Facetime on a mobile phone. He called on Turks to get out on the streets and fight for democracy, and many did. It was a chaotic and violent night. Jets and helicopters flew over Istanbul and Ankara. Gunshots were heard. The government says more than 250 people died, while thousands more were arrested in the weeks since. The country is now in a three-month state of emergency.
Mahon and Vickers moved to Istanbul after being offered positions at the British International School. Mahon is a PE and English teacher, while Vickers teaches the equivalent of junior infants.
“We were away when the coup attempt happened as we’ve been travelling around Europe during the summer holidays,” says Mahon.
“We learned about it via social media and news reports. There were a few of our colleagues and friends in Istanbul at the time. They could hear the helicopters flying overhead and tried to stay inside as much as possible in the days that followed. There were reports that the government was closing private schools like ours, so we were worried about our jobs, but thankfully we are still employed.
“Anyone we spoke to says things have settled down, but we’re interested to go back and see it for ourselves as international media reports often make things seems worse. We’ve been advised to carry our ID with us when we are out and about. The perception that Turkey is unsafe also potentially means that fewer expats will move here, which could mean fewer students enrolling in our school. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
While the couple may not have been in the country for the attempted coup last month, they were in Istanbul on June 27th, when Ataturk International Airport was hit by a suicide gun and bomb attack that left more than 40 people dead and 230 injured. It was carried out by three men from Russia’s North Caucasus region, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. They exploded one bomb each, at three strategic points of the airport, while thousands of people were milling about waiting to catch a flight or pick someone up. It was the ninth major attack in Turkey in the past year, five of which took place in Istanbul.
Cathal and Helen were about 40km away in their apartment in the Sariyer area of the city when the first bomb exploded around 10pm local time on June 27th.
“That attack came as quite a shock,” says Mahon. “Usually we get an email from the British Embassy at work telling us if there is a credible threat in the city. It advises people to avoid crowded areas that could be potentially dangerous, which we always heed. But this time there was nothing. My brother contacted me to see if we were OK as my mother couldn’t get through to us. We also spoke to Helen’s mother as soon as we could to let her know we were safe.”
The couple will arrive back in Istanbul later this month to a city they say they have no intention of leaving, despite how it may have changed.
“I’ve signed another two-year contract at work,” Mahon says. “The possibility of a security threat does play on your mind and you can’t ignore it, especially something like the bombing at Ataturk Airport that seemed to come out of the blue.”
Vickers says that despite pressure from family and friends to move back to Ireland, they won’t be scared away.
“After the first bombings happened last year, I was very skittish about being here, but now I find it easier. Day-to-day I don’t feel threatened. We love our life here. The people are friendly, helpful and respectful. We don’t speak much Turkish, but we still manage to get along with the locals. We’ve made our decision to stay and we both believe you have to keep going. You can’t let fear control your life or your decisions.”
As well as the loss of lives in the attempted coup and multiple bombings, there has also been a huge loss to local livelihoods. The tourism and hospitality industry has been decimated throughout the country, especially in cities close to the eastern border near Syria. Thousands of travellers from all over the world have cancelled or diverted their trips, including Irish tourists.
“One of our Turkish friends runs a boat tour on the Bosphorus. He says his business has been badly affected by the downturn. It’s terrible for him,” says Mahon.
Vickers adds: “I have a lot of sympathy for the people here, who don’t seem to get the same attention when a bombing happens like in Paris or Brussels. I haven’t seen anyone change their profile picture to the Turkish flag on Facebook, like they did after the attacks in France in November.”
Mahon and Vickers say they chose to move to Istanbul because they felt life there would offer them more than what they had in Ireland.
“Our standard of living is much higher here,” Mahon says. “Helen was on minimum wage working in a crèche at home, with no chance of a permanent job. Now we are both on better wages and the cost of living is a lot lower. We live in a nice apartment on the outskirts of a great city, which our employers pay for. Groceries and transport is a lot cheaper, so it makes life easier for us financially.
“The chance of career development is also better here and we get to travel. We’ve already been to see other parts of Turkey, like Ankara and Gallipoli on school trips, so it keeps things interesting. The classes are also much smaller than home, in fact one of my classes only has three pupils in it, so it takes the pressure off. We also feel our jobs are more secure here, which was something we never felt at home.”