To mark Anzac Day, this year Newtown Primary School in Geelong took part in an initiative of Friends of Gallipoli, a not-for-profit dedicated to building friendship between Australia and Turkey following World War I.

On Wednesday 24 April, a member visited the school and made a presentation to students, during which a plaque was unveiled, quoting founder of the Republic of Turkey and former President Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, with plans for it to be permanently displayed in the school.

But when Lee McBryde’s two daughters, both students at Newtown Primary, returned home that afternoon, she says they were confused.

“They’re in Grade 6, and they said their impression was we (Australia) were at war with Turkey. But the school said we’re friends with them. So the girls were pretty confused about the whole thing – they were presenting an enemy as a friend,” Ms McBryde told Neos Kosmos.

As the great granddaughter of an Anzac who fought in Gallipoli, William Cheeseman, and the wife of a first generation Greek Australian, Ms McBryde is also very familiar with the genocide of over two million Armenians and Greeks that took place in Asia Minor between 1915 and 1922.

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“There’s no acknowledgement that the genocide occurred; Greece and Armenia have been asking for an apology for 100 years and they [Turkey] still refuse to,” Ms McBryde added.

Concerned about the curriculum surrounding WWI and the possibility of her children being misled about historical facts, the mother reached out to the school’s principal, Amanda Hay.

“I rang the principal and said that I’m not happy because that quote has been attributed to Kemal Ataturk, but we don’t know that, that’s actually true, that he did say that,” she said.

Ms McBryde revealed that she went on to explain her connection to the Anzac story, and that she believes the plaque is offensive and disrespectful to Anzacs like her great grandfather who fought in the war, and to those whose families were victims of the genocide.

“From the Greek perspective … it’s appalling … I said have you read about the genocide? Do you understand why I’m annoyed? And she said I’m well aware of it, and I said well if you’re aware of it, why would you do it?” revealed Ms McBryde. “And [then] she said, well we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

Ms McBryde is not the only parent with concerns about the plaque. In a post on the school’s official Facebook page, uploaded on 24 April – which has since been taken down – others took to the comment section to express their thoughts.

Unsatisfied with Principal Hay’s response, Ms McBryde decided to write a letter to Minister for Education James Merlino, outlining her concerns.

But when her concerns were raised by Neos Kosmos to Friends of Gallipoli Chairman John Basarin, he was taken aback.

“It is a very famous quote from Mr Mustafa Kemal Ataturk from 1934 … It is recited on many occasions and by very senior people, and it is advocating very much [for] closure, peace and friendship. I can’t see anybody being offended by those words,” Dr Basarin said.

A representative of Friends of Gallipoli at Newtown Primary School with two students, presenting the plaque with Kemal Ataturk’s quote. Photo: Facebook (Newtown Primary School)

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He went on to highlight that the Gallipoli campaign, during which tens of thousands of soldiers lost their lives, was a tragedy for both sides, including Turkey.

“It was a tragic campaign. So to be able to come out of that tragic campaign and say the things Musafa Kemal Ataturk said, is admirable … those words … really took that peace and friendship in a very meaningful way. So if that’s not enough for people of Australia, I don’t know what would be,” he said.

The quote is as follows:
Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

When asked what his thoughts were regarding Ms McBryde’s concerns surrounding Turkey’s refusal thus far to issue an apology for some of the atrocities during this period in history, the Chairman said it was a matter for the Turkish government.

“I think those things are way beyond a discussion you and I can have within Australia. Maybe she [Ms McBryde] is talking about policies relating to the Turkish government, and that’s something I cannot comment on,” he said.

“For me, as an Australian Turkish person, it is important that we have reconciliation, peace and friendship based on the tragic campaign on Gallipoli. The message is very simple. And what happened in the past and involves the Turkish government, all those things are beyond our discussion and does not involve Friends of Gallipoli.”

In her letter to Minister Merlino, Ms McBryde shared Dr Basarin’s sentiment that “moving forward in regards to past wrongs and atrocities is important”, but emphasised that “before healing can occur an apology and recognition of past wrongs needs to happen”.

She told Neos Kosmos that promoting friendship between Turkey and Australia is all well and good, “as long as school children are not being misled”.

* ‘Neos Kosmos’ contacted Newtown Primary School, but Principal Amanda Hay refused to comment.