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Teaching Abroad in Tumultuous Times

There’s been an uptick interrorist attacks throughout the West. So why is the U.S. considered safe, and Europe a risk?

By Alizah Salario


(Photo: Pedro Szekely/Flickr)

In early 2007, I was bored and restless. After two years as an elementary school teacher, I had grown deeply disillusioned with public education. I wanted to experience a different way of teaching, and of life. A sense of wanderlust plagued me, and so, with scant experience under my belt, I signed a two-year contract to teach high school English in Istanbul. If nothing else, it would be an adventure.

My parents felt otherwise. My mother tearfully listed the nebulous dangers I would certainly face: Turkey was close to the Middle East, a war zone, al-Qaeda, Muslims, uncertainty. My father was more proactive. My new job began in August; in the spring of 2007 he decided to take an Aegean cruise that stopped in Istanbul. When the ship docked in Sultanahmet, my father ditched his tour group, hopped in a cab, and handed the driver a document with the address of the school where I’d be teaching.

When my father showed up at my new place of employment unannounced, the principal and the English department head graciously offered him tea and an impromptu school tour in typical Turkish fashion. They assured him — repeatedly, I imagine — that his precious daughter would be fine. Only then did he give me “permission” to move abroad.

I was humiliated. Moreover, I was determined not to let my parents be right. Moving abroad was safe. I wasn’t worried. Why should they be?

“Aren’t you glad you aren’t there now?” my mother asked me during the recent attempted coup in Turkey. She’d said something similar after the horrific terrorist attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport, and after the March bombing along Istiklal Street in the city’s cosmopolitan center, where I’d shopped and dined and danced until 2:00 a.m. many times.

Granted, a lot has changed in Turkey — and the world over — since I moved back to the United States in 2009. In the past year alone, there have been high-profile attacks in Istanbul, Brussels, Paris, Nice — and Orlando and San Bernardino. Lifestyle magazines like Town & Country and Conde Nast Traveler turn veiled questions about terror like “Is Europe Safe to Travel This Summer?” into buzzy headlines. The xenophobic rhetoric of a presidential candidate at home and a refugee crisis abroad have stoked fears of otherness and unleashed a poisonous strain of hate. In part, a similar brand of black and white thinking (“Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists”) during the years post-9/11 is what compelled me to move abroad, and view the world from a different perspective.

Moving abroad was safe. I wasn’t worried. Why should they be?

Which is why my mother’s subtle “I told you so” undid me. It forced me to retroactively consider what I would have done if living in Istanbul today, and play out my decisions under different circumstances. In some versions of this parallel reality I’m unfazed, loyal to my students and my word; in other versions I break my contract and go home. In all of them, I’m aware of the double-standard about what it means to be “safe” during a time of global turmoil — and how this plays out for Americans currently teaching and living abroad.

“There seems to be a misconception that France has become a riskier travel destination than the U.S.,” writes Erin Douglas, an American living in Paris for the past 11 years, in an email.

Douglas, who directs a department of English language teachers for the company Softeam Cadextan, says it never crossed her mind to leave France after the attack on the Bataclan theater in November. Since then, her sense of security hasn’t changed much — her faith in the French government’s ability to protect its citizens, and the city’s increased police presence, give her a sense of reassurance.

“I can’t speak for other European countries but in France, with the exception of the coordinated Bataclan attack, the type of attacks that have happened here have also been happening in the U.S. — the nightclub shooting in Orlando, the workplace shooting in San Bernardino,” she writes. “As I said to my brother who was hesitating about visiting this year, ‘If you are not afraid to go to Orlando, why are you afraid to go to Paris?’”

In both Europe and the U.S., there has been a marked uptick in terrorist activity this year, according to a recent New York Times report analyzing data from the Global Terrorism Database and IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center. Even so, the report also found that terrorist activity was still worse in the 1970s and ’80s than it is today, and that the perception of risk and the actual risk of being the victim of a terror attack do not always correspond.

This gap between real and perceived risks has far-reaching implications. For instance, the U.S. Department of State website publishes statistics about the deaths of U.S. citizens who pass away overseas due to non-natural causes, including terrorism.

“Terrorism is the one that gets the most attention the media, but it’s far down the list in terms of the direct cause of U.S. citizen deaths overseas,” explains William Cocks, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Consular Affairs. Cocks notes that day-to-day risks (vehicle accidents, drowning, even suicide) are far more likely causes of death than terrorism.

Rebecca Self, a former U.S. professor living in Switzerland who now delivers development programs for multinational corporations around the world, considered me even asking if her sense of safety abroad has changed over the past year a “fear-mongering” question; she feels that gun violence and ignorance have created a “climate of completely illogical fear in the U.S.”

“It was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen: three generations of Parisians sang American classics like ‘Born to Run’ together.”

“We went to the Bruce Springsteen concert in Paris on July 13; I was a little bit concerned that evening, because Bruce Springsteen is such an American icon. It was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever seen: three generations of Parisians sang American classics like ‘Born to Run’ together,” Self recalls.

But Paris is not Istanbul, and safety for women goes far beyond feeling threatened by terror attacks. In Istanbul I had almost always felt safe, but I didn’t always feel secure. I wouldn’t think of going to bars alone, or walk in neighborhoods where I knew I’d be the only woman without a head covering. I was a single American woman living in a foreign country. I knew what connotations my identity had; I knew how I might be perceived.

A number of my friends still live and work in Istanbul; I wondered what, if anything, lay behind their cheery Facebook updates? If not their sense of security, had their comfort level changed?

Mark Daigle, an American teacher I worked with who has lived in Istanbul for 11 years, was safely sitting in a cafe, sipping Bomonti beer when the coup broke out. He has no plans on leaving the country any time soon. “I live in a wealthy area of town,” Daigle says. “Rich people don’t revolt; I had little to immediately worry about. America offers me questionable job opportunities and a plethora of stupidity. I can live with the latter here, not the former.”

Meral Simsek, an Australian Turk who has lived in both Istanbul and Izmir, Turkey, painted a less rosy picture. “You would be very surprised if you came here. The last time I was in Taksim I did not feel at ease,” she shares. For Simsek, the political propaganda feels intrusive, and the sense of conflict is palpable.

Though she just started a new school year, Simsek has mixed feelings about staying. What’s more, since the attempted coup occurred during summer break, some teachers she was acquainted with weren’t able to return and pack up their things. “For many, the paycheck is better here than what it would be back in their home countries, but many teachers who signed up with schools have pulled out. My current school and last school are struggling to find foreign teachers.”

After eight years in Turkey, Simsek plans to return home to Melbourne after the current school year ends.

In Istanbul, I ended up living in a lovely but somnambulant neighborhood far up the European side of the Bosphorus. There, I could barely feel the city’s intoxicating heartbeat all the way down in Beyoglu; I was far from the excitement, far from the real city, and far from the experience I came for.

At 7:15 each morning, a mini-bus provided by my school took me to work, where a guard nodded us through the gate of my affluent hilltop campus. Neighbors looked out for me, my school provided excellent security, and a taxi driver even once returned my wallet. My teacher friends and I — mostly other foreigners — hung out at a sprawling modern mall across the street from our school, or at trendy cafes in upscale neighborhoods. My life felt secure; at times suffocatingly bougie. I’d moved overseas to live a bolder, broader life, only to find my world constricted to the size of a small plate of overpriced mezes.

Today, when I reflect on this dissonance and my desire for a more “real” experience, it makes me slightly ashamed. After all, the attack at Ataturk airport was real. So was the attempted coup. So were all the people who died. To think that more drama and danger would’ve made my experience in Istanbul more authentic is a naive, romantic notion, almost as naive and romantic as the notion that safety — or danger — is fixed to a place, a people, or a country.

I try to remind myself of this when I get off subway in downtown Manhattan to begin my banal workday, and I look up at the empty space once occupied by the Twin Towers. I remind myself that all along, in Chicago and Istanbul and now New York, I’ve always been walking a narrow tightrope between security and danger, most of the time not even paying attention to where I place my steps.