ISTANBUL: Turkish elementary school teacher Esra Sahin recalls welcoming a new eight-year-old Syrian refugee into her class at Fatih Sultan Mehmet Elementary School, one of many she has taken in thanks to a Turkish policy that grants access to education to Syrian children officially registered as refugees. The only problem was that the boy’s I.D. stated he was two years old.
Sahin, a dedicated and concerned teacher, spent hours correcting the error with Istanbul’s migration authorities. She worries, however, about how the Turkish school will cope with the challenge of incorporating another 100,000 Syrian refugee children into the Turkish school system by the end of the year.
Few Syrian students speak Turkish, and many have missed years of schooling and struggle with emotional scars from the war.
“It’s a big problem – teachers aren’t prepared to teach Turkish as a foreign language, let alone teach students who have had to deal with the trauma of war and upheaval,” Sahin says.
At the inaugural United Nations World Humanitarian Summit (WHS), Turkey’s efforts to educate hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees will be in the spotlight, as humanitarian organizations push for millions of dollars in funding to support children forced out of school due to crisis and conflict.
Turkey has taken a central role in the response to the Syria crisis, hosting close to 3 million Syrian refugees – more than any other country. Some 330,000 children are already enrolled in Turkish schools, according to the education ministry. But many are struggling. While those with the means have enrolled in Syrian-run private schools that operate outside of the Turkish system, nearly 500,000 children remain entirely cut off from the education system. Many have been pushed into early marriage or the labor market, while others sit in temporary homes or roam Turkish streets.
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The summit aims to draw attention to the worst global displacement crisis since World War II – a crisis in which 4.8 million Syrian refugees have played a central role. While the conference will be global in scope, Syrian refugees will be in the forefront of the minds of world leaders, international organizations and NGOs.
Earlier this spring, the E.U. pledged up to 6 billion euros ($6.7 billion) to assist with the care of the millions of Syrian refugees in Turkey, including the provision of schooling. Yet even with the spotlight of the World Humanitarian Summit, it still remains unclear exactly how funding will be used to improve refugee education in Turkey. Money is short, says Turkey’s minister of education, Nabi Avci. And the “simple math” of aid per student means that even the billions of euros extended to Turkey this year will not be enough to bring every Syrian refugee child into the existing school system.
“The international community has failed Syria and Syrian refugees,” says Nada Hashem of the Karam Foundation, an aid organization based on the Syrian border. “We hope that the WHS will serve as a platform for NGOs working in the education sector to develop solutions to the many difficulties they have witnessed in education such as accessibility, enrollment barriers, education quality and psychosocial support for traumatized children.”
Syrians and Turks alike agree that ensuring access to education for Syrian refugees should be a priority, but questions abound. Should the children enter Turkish public schools or should a parallel system in Arabic be maintained? Are the Syrian students in Turkey temporarily, or are they here to stay?
Funding alone will not be the solution to challenges of educational integration. Schools face the task of creating an inclusive environment for Syrian students who have been uprooted from their homes and resettled in Turkey. This involves confronting the lattice of religious, ethnic, socioeconomic and linguistic cleavages that may have surfaced in local communities as a result of recent demographic shifts with the arrival of Syrian refugees.
Currently, temporary education centers – private schools in which administration and instruction are conducted in Arabic with a modified Syrian curriculum – have been the preferred option for Syrian families in Turkey who can afford school fees and have held onto hopes of a swift return to Syria.
Even those, though, are a pale shadow of the Syrian schools the children once enjoyed. Ghina, a 16-year-old student at a temporary education center in Gaziantep, laments the weak instruction and changing curriculum. She attends classes for only a few hours a day at a school that teaches Turkish children in the morning and Syrian children in the afternoon.
“I’ve been studying for three years, but it doesn’t count for anything. I’m years behind where I should be,” she says. “The schools are really bad – they are always closing and the curriculum is changing.”
In Syria, she was bound for the University of Damascus, but forced to make do with a makeshift schooling system in Turkey, she’s not sure if her dreams of attending university will pan out. As for many Syrians, her future is uncertain. One of her sisters is in the U.S., another is in Germany. Her dad was detained in Syria. Her mom is trying to get them out of Turkey.
“We need to go back to Syria and rebuild it,” she says.
With 1.5 million Syrian children in Turkey, many education officials and experts are pushing for a sustainable model that integrates them into Turkish society and public schools, while avoiding the potential ghettoization of a generation that could one day be radicalized.
Relations between Turkey and Syria were strong in the early 2000s. The then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan had adopted a “zero-problems” policy with his Muslim neighbors. Turkey and Syria – once distant and aloof as a result of competing land claims in Hatay province, and tensions involving Kurdish rebels in the borderlands – became warm friends, with bustling trade and visa-free travel.
But the abrupt onset of the Arab Spring, Ankara’s support for Syrian rebels against President Bashar al-Assad, and the sustained influx of refugees into Turkey upset the budding friendship.
Syrian refugees who were at first welcomed as “temporary guests” in an act of Muslim solidarity are now seemingly in Turkey to stay, and anti-Syrian sentiment is beginning to fester in certain communities. Children exposed to these antipathies sometimes recreate them in school.
Sahin says that some Syrian students face bullying or social exclusion in Turkish public schools, a claim reinforced in a recent Human Rights Watch report. In other cases, it is the Turks who say the Syrians are doing the bullying. Sahin has 17 Syrian students who attend her school, and her colleagues sometimes accuse her of working more with the Syrians than “their own kids.” When problems inevitably arise, the groups quickly split along nationalistic lines.
“A mob of parents came to me to protest our acceptance of Syrians after a rumor spread that a five-year-old Syrian boy had threatened a girl with a knife,” Sahin says. After investigating the situation, Sahin learned the boy had merely motioned his finger like a knife. But the distrust toward Syrian students lingered.
Fatih Sultan Mehmet Elementary School has implemented Turkish language workshops in the mornings, open to Syrian students and their parents. The school has also partnered with SosyalBen, an NGO that brings together both Turkish and Syrian students on Saturdays and Sundays for sports and arts workshops to help facilitate integration and build self-confidence. Turkish students who once openly disdained “those Syrians” now bring them toys to play with.
“When they’re collaborating in workshops, there’s no separation in their minds between ‘Turkish’ or ‘Syrian’,” says Ece Ciftci, the head of SosyalBen. “They’re just peers.”
FPIR journalist Anna Lekas Miller contributed to the reporting.