MARDIN, Turkey – “Ladies, please open to page 36 of your books,” Veysi Dilmen instructs the dozen or so Syrian women huddled in a small classroom in this Turkish border town. It has seen a massive influx of refugees since war broke out in neighboring Syria. As the women practice the new verbs they’ve learned, some of them sip black tea in tulip-shaped glasses, their children sitting on their laps.
Aisha, 36, is four months pregnant with her first child and has been attending the Turkish-language classes for three weeks. She and her husband fled Aleppo in 2014, leaving her elderly parents behind.
“I am happy being [away from the war], but life is tough here,” says Aisha (who asked that her full name not be published). “I miss my parents so much; I still see them and our house in Aleppo every night in my dreams. My father has been ill for years. If they die while I am still here, in a secure country, I’ll never be able to forgive myself,” she says, tears running down her cheeks.
Aisha and her husband are desperate to start a family in their new country, despite the economic difficulties they face daily. Her husband is a car mechanic who occasionally works in construction as a laborer, to make ends meet. The fact that neither of them speaks Turkish is a serious obstacle to getting good work. Aisha is currently unemployed – but she isn’t learning Turkish to get a job, although she knows it will help. Her reasons are more personal. “This is not my first pregnancy here,” she says, hesitating. “I’ve lost two babies before.”
Despite still having the characteristics of a developing economy, with a per capita GDP of $12,000, Turkey has been praised for its efforts to help ease Europe’s refugee crisis. The country has taken in almost 3 million refugees since the war in Syria broke out in 2011. But although Turkey’s health services are available and free to refugees, there are issues of access, mainly due to the language barrier.
When Aisha had her first miscarriage, she and her husband went to a Turkish state hospital. But because they couldn’t speak Turkish and the doctors knew no Arabic, the couple didn’t know what was happening. “I don’t even know why I lost the baby. The doctors didn’t explain. I didn’t understand anything,” Aisha recalls. When they lost their second baby, they paid to go to a private hospital where there was an Arabic-speaking doctor. Aisha’s treatment after her miscarriage cost 200 Turkish lira ($54) – money they couldn’t really afford to spend. “My husband doesn’t always have work. It’s a lot of money for us,” she says.
With support from the humanitarian organization RET International, the women-only classes Aisha attends have been running since July 2016, and so far about 100 students have enrolled. According to Emel Demirel, a project coordinator at Geneva-based RET, learning Turkish is one of the easiest ways to increase the quality of life, not only for refugee women but also their families. “From a gender equality perspective, learning Turkish matters to refugee women like nothing else,” she says. “There are a lot of highly qualified women among the Syrian refugees, but they cannot work in Turkey because of the language barriers.”
Demirel says that female refugees who cannot speak Turkish face daily discrimination, such as being cheated when they go shopping for groceries. The damage to a woman’s self-confidence can discourage her from leaving the house and, as a result, her visibility, self-sufficiency and independence take a hit. Speaking Turkish not only restores that feeling of independence, says Demirel, but also creates a ripple effect on the rest of the woman’s life.
“After finishing the Turkish classes, a physician who was an eye specialist [in Syria] started to work in one of the Mardin hospitals,” she says. “There are other professionals who have done the same – such as lawyers and teachers.”
Demirel sees the benefits spreading from a woman to her husband, children and extended family – not only can she teach them to speak Turkish, but she can speak for them when they need help accessing services or getting a fair deal when shopping: “When one of them learns Turkish, an entire family will do so much better.”
For Aisha, learning Turkish is a way for her to protect the family she’s trying to build. “I am praying every day that I get to give birth to a healthy baby,” she says. “But if I lose this one as well, this time I at least want to be able to know why I lost it.”