Christian Herrmann

Youth and expert exchanges with Turkey are more important than ever

German-Turkish relations have been fairly turbulent in recent months. What has this meant for youth exchanges between Germany and Turkey? In late September, representatives of youth exchange organisations travelled to Alanya in Turkey to attend a German-Turkish partners’ fair – a good opportunity to discuss the state of play. We asked Christiane Reinholz-Asolli, IJAB’s Programme Associate for Turkey, to share her opinions with us.

BildImage: Christian Herrmann | IJAB

Ms Reinholz-Asolli, you recently travelled with a group of German experts to a partners’ fair in Alanya, after the bilateral special committee of the two countries’ youth ministries last year agreed to organise one. What is the mood among the Turkish partners at the moment?

Christiane Reinholz-Asolli: The German-Turkish partners’ fair and conference of organisations took place in late September in Alanya. Both sides had sent experienced exchange organisations as well as newcomers who met up with partners from the other country for the first time. Among the participants there were even a German and a Turkish youth centre who had attended the very first partners’ fair in 1997 and have been organising youth exchanges ever since – that’s 20 years of experience!

Given the political tensions between Germany and Turkey, there was quite a bit of debate beforehand whether we would even travel to Turkey and what we could expect from the Turkish partners and participants. Encouragingly, none of the German organisations who had signed up for the fair decided to cancel, so it was quite a large group that met up in Alanya, with 13 German and 16 Turkish experts in total.

Non-formal education methods are great for quickly creating a laid-back and friendly atmosphere, so on the first evening the participants were already deep in discussion. Many of the German participants have an ethnic Turkish background, which certainly helped to establish a rapport with the participants on the Turkish side. During the actual event, there were several sessions during which smaller mixed groups could discuss certain points in more detail. There was a lot of dialogue going on from the very beginning, and it quickly became clear that the Turkish participants are very interested in getting involved in Turkish-German exchanges and working with partners in a wide variety of settings.

There’s no doubt that government-led youth work in Turkey has become more conservative and more religiously flavoured in recent years. In the youth centres, much attention is given to the country’s Ottoman heritage and on Islamic culture and religion. Religious issues have acquired a new significance, which can be quite a challenge for the German partners. During this event in Alanya, though, the German experts were pleasantly surprised to see how open-minded and committed their Turkish counterparts were. Most of the Germans had expected the representatives of the state-run youth centres, in particular, to be different.

Did you encounter any taboo subjects during the event?

Christiane Reinholz-Asolli: As far as I am aware, references to the current political situation were avoided during the German-Turkish talks. But this was only true for politics in the narrow sense. There was plenty of discussion concerning the implementation of German-Turkish exchange programmes in general. Given that they are part of non-formal education, international youth exchanges are all about promoting more respect and tolerance for alternative viewpoints and encouraging young people to play an active role in the community, for instance. And these are political issues too, in the best sense of the word!

The partners on the Turkish side are state-run organisations, such as public youth centres, as well as civil society groups. What expectations do they have when it comes to existing or potential German partners?

Christiane Reinholz-Asolli: The Turkish organisations’ interest in an exchange with Germany remains very strong. For instance, the Erasmus+ Youth in Action programme is registering a rising number of applications from Turkey. Among the applications  received for German-Turkish activities, a disproportionately high number are currently submitted by Turkish organisations.

The organisational structures of Germany’s child and youth services providers are quite specific and highly diverse. German partners often look for a partner with a similar institutional background. However, that’s rarely a major concern for Turkish organisations.

As many as around 300 youth centres in Turkey are run by the Ministry of Youth and Sports. Practically all of them want to get involved in international youth exchanges and are hence looking for a partner. The primary concern for the colleagues in these centres is to find a partner at all with whom they can take the first few steps.

Turkey’s civil society is under pressure; at least that’s what the media and human rights organisations are reporting. Can youth and expert exchanges help strengthen civil society groups in Turkey?

Christiane Reinholz-Asolli: Of course all stakeholders working in German-Turkish youth exchanges are in some way affected by the pressure under which many partner organisations in Turkey are at the moment. Our Turkish partners need our support and our solidarity. However, the way in which we show that support should be discussed on a case-by-case basis with each individual partner. After all, having active international contacts is not always a good thing.

On principle, I am convinced that there is no alternative to dialogue. I think youth and expert exchanges with Turkey are more important than ever. Let me quote a participant of the partners’ fair who had expected the representatives of the state-run youth centres to be more conservative. She ended up being surprised at how open and seriously interested they were and said,

“Turkey is a diverse country and the Turks are very welcoming and courteous. Even though I can’t reconcile Turkey’s politics with my understanding of democracy, I am aware that the younger generation in particular is open to democratic values – and the younger generation is my primary concern when I plan youth exchanges. Also, I think it’s very important to keep the channels of communication between Turkey and Germany open. Germany is home to more than four million ethnic Turks. Youth exchanges are highly significant when it comes to continued integration. Cultural understanding and tolerance are vital if we want to better integrate other cultures in German society. That’s why young people are the best target group and youth exchanges are the best instrument for this.”

Youth and expert exchanges with Turkey are no longer as numerous as they once were, with one reason being security concerns. How safe is it in Turkey today, in your opinion?

Christiane Reinholz-Asolli: It’s impossible to give a generalised answer to that question. The travel warnings of the Federal Foreign Office should be the first port of call. If they explicitly warn against travelling to a given region, that’s good advice that should be heeded. Also, there is a difference between youth projects and those involving experts. Adults can ultimately decide for themselves whether they personally want to take the risk.

In my opinion, it’s not ideal that most if not all German-Turkish youth and expert exchanges are currently being relocated to Germany, with practically no activities taking place in Turkey. That doesn’t solve the problem. It would make more sense to sit down with a group of experienced stakeholders and discuss some creative alternatives. Some ideas for this already exist, for instance moving activities to other places (a third country, a region near the border or similar). Obviously, this would require the funding organisations to be more flexible; but whenever there’s been actual problems in the past, we’ve always managed to come to an agreement.

The German-Turkish partners’ fair was organised by IJAB in cooperation with Deutsch-Türkische Jugendbrücke and German Sports Youth.

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