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Basketball Helps Kurdish Village Heal Wounds

  • Dorian Jones

Diyarbakir, Turkey's largest Kurdish city, is at the center of a decades-long conflict between the state and Kurdish rebels fighting for autonomy. The city often sees clashes between young people and security forces. But one man has devoted his life to bringing hope and a way out of violence for the city's youth through basketball.

Diyarbakir's Baglar basketball team is winning again. The team has built a formidable reputation against the better-funded teams in western Turkey. Coach Gokhan Yildirim is the architect of the team.

Yildirim's 20-year basketball odyssey started in a school yard as a 19-year-old student.

"The children didn't have a clue about basketball," he explained. "They didn't even know what a basketball looked like, and when we asked them to bring a basketball, they would bring a volleyball. We always had to say 'bring the orange ball.'"

The Baglar quarter of Diyarbakir, where the basketball team is based, was born out of the conflict between Turkish security forces and Kurdish rebels, the PKK. Many of the families living there were forced to flee their villages because of the fighting.

Baglar is synonymous with clashes with the security forces, often involving children and youths.

Yildirim is working hard, though, to build a new reputation for Baglar. His basketball team now has a practice court thanks to the local municipality, which devoted its meager resources to support it. Baglar Mayor Yuksel Baran said the team is an inspiration to the whole community.

"I believe the team will continue to be successful because in these youths there is faith," she said. "They have built this team from nothing. They work with belief, even with faith. They show so much sacrifice and effort to keep the team going."

Yildirim believes such commitment means a basketball team can offer an alternative to confrontation for the community's young.

"The situation here pushes young children to be fighters. They think they can solve their problems by fighting," he said. "I am trying to counter this by showing them love, telling them this team is their home, here we protect you, and that each and every one of them is important."

Yildirim coaches six teams, and his colleague works with five girls teams, which are equally successful.

Success does not come easily. Yildirim devotes about six hours a day as a coach, after finishing work as a teacher. But captain Ali Alaca says Yildirim is much appreciated.

"His efforts here in Baglar, Diyarbakir - even in general in the southeast - are immeasurable," he said, "inspiring the children, providing education and proving that life is not only about money, or sports, or education, but doing all of them together."

For a few players, Baglar has been a stepping-stone to professional clubs, while another player won a U.S. school basketball scholarship. For Yildirim, winning is important.

"When we lose, I can't get out of bed. I don't like losing. It is a terrible thing," he said. "I get so angry that sometimes I feel my heart will stop." Then he laughs.

But Baglar's trophy room is a testament to his success - a success Gokhan Yildirim is hoping will help carve out a new reputation in Turkey for Baglar youths other than one of violence.
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