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After a School Year Lost to War, Aleppo Sisters Shine in Istanbul

Since their tough start in Istanbul, Sabah and Mayas, two sisters from Aleppo, have mastered Turkish and are now thriving at school. But many Syrian refugee children feel lost in Turkey’s education system – if they make it to class at all.

Written by Didem Tali Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Sabah Trefi gets ready for school. Her family fled Aleppo and found refuge in Istanbul, where she quickly learned Turkish. Didem Tali

ISTANBUL – It is pitch dark when Sabah Trefi, an 11-year-old Syrian refugee from Aleppo, wakes up at 6:30 a.m. to get ready for school. Sabah, whose name means “morning” in Arabic, says she doesn’t mind getting up before sunrise. “The room is a bit cold; I am sorry about that,” she says.

She shares a room with her sister, Mayas, 10, who is also awake. Together, they make their beds and place their teddy bears on the blankets. Sabah puts on loose black trousers, a pink shirt and a long black waistcoat – her school uniform.

“I would actually prefer to wear a long skirt instead of trousers. But anyway, this is my school uniform now. I like my pink shirt. It fits with my glasses,” Sabah says, with a smile.

Sabah and her family fled the war-ravaged city of Aleppo two years ago and came to Turkey as refugees. Since then, they have been living in Istanbul’s conservative Fatih district, home to the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. Nestled in the old heart of Istanbul, Fatih is a mix of upscale neighborhoods and poorer areas with affordable properties to rent. That makes it an attractive choice for many refugees, such as Sabah and Mayas’ family.

“This is our new home now,” says Muhammad Trefi, 50. He was a civil engineer back in Syria, but now his skills as an engineer don’t have equivalency in Turkey. He has been supporting his family of seven by giving Arabic and Quran classes in the neighborhood. “We won’t be returning back to Aleppo. And it doesn’t seem like this war is going to stop.”

He’s happy with his choice of relocating his family to Turkey, a Muslim-majority country, where Trefi feels that they’re able to practice their religion freely. “Religion is important for our family,” he says.

After fleeing Aleppo, the Trefi family settled in Istanbul’s Fatih district. (Didem Tali)

When Trefi realized his family would not return to Aleppo, his first priority was to make sure his children spoke good Turkish. “We need to build a new life here now. Hopefully, in a few years we’ll also become Turkish citizens,” he says.

When they moved to Fatih, he bought a small notebook to write down new vocabulary every day, and practiced it with his daughters. Although he was the one to initiate the process of learning the language at home, his daughters’ Turkish skills have long since surpassed his thanks to their schooling.

“The girls absorbed everything so easily,” he says, smiling. “Now they translate for us and help us in our daily life.”

Both Sabah and Mayas have found confidence in being able to help their family with their Turkish skills. “I always help my mother buy groceries at the market,” Sabah says. “Otherwise, if people realize you don’t speak Turkish, they might not give fair prices.”

With their success in learning the language and their strong, steady progress in school, Sabah and Mayas are exceptions among Turkey’s population of Syrian children. The Turkish government offers free education and health services for almost 3 million Syrians, but because the official curriculum is taught in Turkish, many refugee children struggle in the classroom. And almost as many refugee children don’t even get that far. According to UNICEF, there are about 380,000 school-aged Syrian children in Turkey who are currently not attending school – that’s more than 40 percent of all school-aged Syrian children living in Turkey. Reasons range from enrollment barriers to economic hardship, which force some children to go to work to help support their families.

Compassionate and Helpful

Trefi wants all his children – Sabah, Maya and their three younger brothers – to have a solid religious upbringing and learn the principles of Islam, which is why Sabah, his eldest child, started attending a religious middle school in September. Mayas, who is in her final year in primary school, will soon join her sister there.

“We actually only have 10 hours of religious classes a week. The rest is all standard classes like maths, Turkish language or science,” says Sabah, who excels in Islamic classes due to a natural advantage. “My first language is Arabic – so I find it very easy to memorize the prayers and learn the Quran compared to my classmates.”

Although Sabah is currently happy at her school, this hasn’t always been the case. Two years ago, when her family first arrived in Istanbul, she recalls feeling like a fish out of water.

“I had already been out of school for a year. Our school in Aleppo had shut down due to the war,” she says. “I felt very nervous on the first day of the school [in Turkey]. It was already a strange feeling being back at school after not going to classes for so long. People were talking all around me in a language that I didn’t understand. I felt so lonely and upset.”

Mayas echoes her sister’s experiences.

“My mom dropped me off at the school. I just clutched her arm and didn’t want to let her go,” Mayas says.

Mayas Trefi is doing well at her new school in Istanbul, where she has discovered an affinity for math. (Didem Tali)

The girls are grateful to have teachers who Sabah describes as “compassionate and helpful.” Taking exams when her Turkish wasn’t as strong as it is now was tough, she says. “But they were very understanding. They always gave us extra time. I had one teacher who personally stood with me during the exams and translated the questions for me.”

In her class of 32 girls, there are two other Syrian refugees like her, Sabah says, who receive the same attention from the teachers.

“When I first started, my grades weren’t very good,” she says. “But my teachers helped me a lot. Now I am one of the top students in my class.”

From Successful to Struggling

Both girls feel they have fully adapted to their new schools and homes. And Sabah has discovered a new passion for drawing during her free time. “If I am ever down, I just draw. It makes me feel very good and forget my worries. See, I drew a portrait of Recep Tayyip Erdogan,” she says, pointing to a pencil-drawn sketch of the controversial Turkish president, who is adored by many refugees, including the Trefi family, for letting millions of Syrians into Turkey.

Sabah Trefi loves to draw. This sketch represents Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. (Photo by Didem Tali)

While Sabah sees a future for herself in decoration or visual arts, Mayas takes comfort in the certainty of numbers. “When I didn’t speak Turkish, I found all the classes so difficult. But maths was all the same,” she says. “We did the same things with numbers in Syria.”

But not every Syrian girl in Turkey is doing as well as Sabah and Mayas when it comes to education. Sabah says one of her old schoolmates from Aleppo is now struggling in Turkey. They used to be in the same class, but the girl is now two grades below Sabah.

“I was very surprised when I saw Hatice at my new school,” she says. “I didn’t know [her family] had come to Istanbul as well. Hatice was a successful girl back in Aleppo. But she and her family – they don’t speak very good Turkish. Her grades aren’t very good.”

With a university-educated father who prioritizes language skills, Sabah and Mayas have enjoyed the privilege of a smooth adaptation to their new life in Turkey. But according to research by the Hacettepe University Center of Migration and Politics, most Syrian refugees in Turkey – like Hatice – come from underprivileged and rural backgrounds, with limited schooling. And that makes the process of building a new life in a new country much more difficult.

“Now that Hatice has received a few really bad grades, she doesn’t believe she can improve anymore,” says Sabah. “It must be a really bad feeling. I understand her. I just really hope she doesn’t give up on her education.”


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Living in the Shadows, a Family Tries to Secure Its Children’s Future

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