Abdullah is building an empowerment path for youth from state institutions to integrate with society as equal citizens, to develop essential life skills and ultimately become leaders and participants in social change. He is also intervening at Turkey’s closed and problematic orphanage and state childcare system by implementing model projects, by building the capacities of strategically important NGOs and by guiding government institutions in their policymaking processes. In doing so, he is not only bringing full citizenship to a strategically important group that has faced systematic discrimination, but he is also presenting a method to fight social exclusion for all marginalized youth groups.
The New Idea
Abdullah has established It’s Your Life Youth Academy, which enables youth from state childcare institutions to thrive in life by building a success pathway and a support ecosystem so that all orphans can live in healthy family environments and have opportunities to realize their full potentials in life.
The academy functions as a platform where youth and children from state institutions can integrate with other youth, develop professional and life skills and practice active citizenship firsthand. It is also a source of expertise and guidance for professional groups, NGOs and government agencies that have critical importance for its target group – such as associations of social workers, organizations established by and for individuals with orphanage experiences and associations of foster families - supplying them with important information, know-how and strategic direction to make their interventions more impactful.
Intervening at the problem on individual, institutional and societal levels, Abdullah is empowering individual youth to become changemakers, enabling key civil society organizations to develop more impactful projects and programs and finally, encouraging government institutions to develop effective strategies, policies and adopt good models to transform Turkey’s state care institutions and orphanages.
Neglect, violence and abuse are widespread in Turkey’s orphanages and state childcare institutions. Although there are no comprehensive statistics or monitoring mechanisms available due to the closed nature of the system, scandals of physical and sexual abuse often find place in mainstream media. Among the youth “graduating” from these institutions, developmental and behavioral disorders, school drop-outs, early marriage and parenthood are common. While an estimate 10% gets engaged in criminal activity at some point in their lives, mental hospitals report half of their patients having a past with state childcare institutions and orphanages. About 20.000 children inhabit these state institutions annually, several thousand graduating and entering society every year. Considering the public officials, teachers, foster families and other directly related stakeholders, the problem affects hundreds of thousands of individuals in the country every year.
Growing up in unfavorable conditions and “graduating” from these institutions without any support networks or skills, youth leaving state care find it hard to solve their problems without using violence, to overcome life challenges or to integrate in the society as full citizens. Those that do manage to sustain themselves in jobs and have social lives after leaving the institutions report feelings of isolation and hopelessness, self-identifying as “losers” or “failures”. They also face negative discrimination from the society that sees them as potential criminals and troublemakers. Youth from state care go on to internalize and perpetuate these negative stereotypes, which greatly limit their aspirations regarding work, life or making a difference in their surroundings.
Although there has recently been a shift from institutional care towards foster family and community based care by the government, the society’s prejudices towards this group has prevented such initiatives from spreading and taking root. Civil society organizations fail to dedicate sufficient attention and resources to this area, while charity organizations established by individuals from state institutions lack vision and capacity to achieve any systematic change.
Abdullah has built a platform that offers youth from state institutions (making up 25% of the participants) and other disadvantaged backgrounds a myriad of training and experience opportunities to develop their professional and life skills. Functioning as a funnel of engagement, youth at the Academy can benefit from trainings and certificate programs that increase their employability, communication, team work and leadership skills. Options cover a wide range, from one-time workshops delivered by experts in a given area, to attending yearlong certificate programs in foreign languages, information technologies or obtaining driving licenses. If the youth wish to deepen their involvement, they are invited to use their newly acquired skills towards social change – either by getting involved in existing social projects of the Academy or starting their own social ventures. To date, the Academy has reached over 2500 youth, activating them to be full citizens and changemakers. Today, Academy’s volunteers have become an important human resource for civil society organizations as volunteers. Abdullah has also established a special track for those youth showing potential to launch their own ventures and currently mentors and coaches 30 high-potential youth in establishing and sustaining their own social organizations.
Abdullah and the Academy also work on the institutional level. Realizing the need to work with multipliers and strategic partners, they help these organizations in vision setting as well as strategy building and increasing their social impact. To this end, Abdullah is working with the 40 organizations established by and for supporting individuals from state institutions and orphanages, the NGOs established by social workers and foster family organizations to increase their capacities through trainings, knowledge and best practice exchanges. Another strategy has been to develop strategically important model projects to be adopted by government institutions. For instance, identifying school environment as a critical intervention point, they have developed a training program for public school teachers on how to deal with children from state institutions in classroom settings. The program has reached 1200 teachers and was adopted by the Ministry of Education to be implemented nationwide. The institutional level work also constitutes the major spreading strategy for Abdullah, where he is empowering and equipping multiple organizations and leaders to become ambassadors across the country. Due to their deep knowledge and know-how on the needs of youth from state institutions, as well as their strategic partnerships with key organizations and Abdullah’s skillful, non-politicized leadership, the Academy has also become an important resource for key government agencies such as the Ministry of Social Affairs. The Academy has also launched a comprehensive communication campaign to address prejudices towards children and youth in state institutions, reaching over 30.000 people through informative presentations, formal and social media channels.
Abdullah spent 11 years of his childhood and youth in state orphanages and institutions. During these years he always stood out among his peers with his sense of justice, conflict-resolution and leadership skills. Whenever there was a conflict, he was the one even older kids sought to resolve the issue. Also exceptionally smart and hard-working, Abdullah was able to complete his education and scored well at the national public service exams. He started a successful career as a public servant at the capital, Ankara, the dream job for many young people due to its high pay and job security. Although he was not very interested in the job itself, he used this position to attend every training, course, volunteering opportunity he could find to develop himself, which were preparing him for his future role in the Academy.
All was going well for him in his professional and private life, yet as he continued his life, he observed the difficulties his siblings and friends who went through the same path were encountering. They were not able hold a job for a long time, depressed, isolated and even getting dragged into criminal activities. Determined to support youth starting their life after institutional care, he approached an existing solidarity association for people from state institutions in Ankara. The association was bankrupt and its members were elderly people who were hardly managing the day to day work of the organization. Abdullah and his friends took over the association and re-launched it with a professional management, new vision, strategy and corporate identity as It’s Your Life Academy.
In just a few years, Abdullah was able to to empower thousands of youth, both from state institutions and other disadvantaged backgrounds to become changemakers, to achieve significant change in key organizations in terms of vision and strategy and influence central government in policy change. Today he is considered one of the most prominent leaders of the youth movement in Turkey.