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Makeshift Syrian schools struggle in Turkey

Syrian schools built in Turkey to teach refugee children are struggling to make progress due to a lack of funding and facilities
Refugee Syrian schoolchildren in a school in Turkey, which now harbours one million Syrian refugees according to authorities (Laura Cesaretti, MEE)

MARDIN, Turkey - It is 7am and no cafes or shops are open in the old historic centre of Mardin, a little city on the southeastern Turkish-Syrian border. There are small children waiting on a street corner for the bus coming to pick them up.

The driver speaks Arabic, Kurdish and Turkish - something that is quite common in a region of old Mesopotamia, which has been a base for different ethnicities for centuries. He drives down roads filled with new, modern buildings, towards a neighbourhood still dominated by old stone houses. These areas were uninhabited for almost 20 years, but were recently become crowded as thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the country’s devastating civil war seek shelter there.

After almost 20 minutes, the bus stops in the middle of a desolated area. It is 8am, and a school bell starts ringing. Around 300 children are shouting and running are heading to class, some ask teachers where to go, others remain in the halls, playing with their friends. Many are already sitting diligently in the classroom, eager for the lesson to start. The mood, like in any other school, is expectant, but it soon becomes clear that this school faces a special situation.

Due to language barriers, Syrian children cannot follow the lessons in normal Turkish schools. Local and international organisations have had to step in and provide special schools in makeshift structures like this school so they can continue their education in Arabic.

The major hurdle facing this attempt at dual education is a lack of funding. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), some $62m is needed to cover the education of Syrian children living inside and outside the Turkish camps. Children account for more than 50 percent of Turkey’s 713,000 UN-registered Syrian refugee population, a figure which Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an this week said had ballooned to over 1m.

In this school in Mardin, which is privately financed by the Kuwaiti and Turkish NGO Uluslararasi ?efkat Derne?i (International Association for Compassion), there are no heaters and kids are forced to sit in lessons with their jackets on.  Flooring is barely finished and the building still needs major construction work.  Basic learning tools, such as books or stationary, are often missing.

“We have seen children coming to school without shoes and many of them cannot come because their family cannot pay the 35 Turkish lira ($16) for the monthly public transport”, complained one teacher.

The teachers, along with the school director, Khaled Abu Tarek, former Imam of Omar Alfarols mosque in Aleppo, are trying their best to create a normal educational environment.

Paintings and balloons hang on the walls, coloured posters, such as alphabets and geographical maps are in the classrooms, but more is needed. One of the objectives set for 2014 by UNHCR and other agencies, is to; “ensure free access for formal and non formal education for Syrian refugee children in camps and non-camps and increase the quality of education in a safe and secure learning environment.  But this seems far from a reality in Mardin.

“International observers come here just to take pictures but do not talk with us, they don’t ask what we need and we don’t know if we will receiving funding from them and how this would be used”, says Amina (not her real name), a primary school teacher.

Like most of the other professors, Amina prefers to be quoted with a false name, and worries that even teaching could be dangerous in these difficult times.

Amina, like all her colleagues, does this job more out of a charitable spirit than a desire for paid work.

“Many of these kids talk at home just about war and the situation in Syria, we want to give them a break and the feeling of being back in a normal routine”, explains Yusuf, the Arabic teacher.

Many of the teachers still have relatives in Syria. Others are on temporary secondment from government jobs there, and the fear of future government repercussions is high.

However, they all feel a duty to give the children their time and energy: “Teaching for us is very important, but most of all we feel the need to offer them psychological support”, said Hasan, the English teacher. 

He explains how children often ask him about their future and what will happen in Syria once the war ends: “Some are scared that the certificate that they get here will not be valid when they will go back to Syria. I cannot lie to them, no one knows what will happen after the war has ended, but I told them not to worry. What is more important is that they work hard and keep their minds trained”.

Despite the efforts of Syrian teachers and local volunteers, it is estimated that only 14 percent of refugee children outside the camps are attending school. A major problem is child labour. Due to the extreme economic difficulty of refugee families, many male adolescents drop out of school earlier to help their parents with work.

One of them, Khaled, the youngest of six brothers, says that though he is just 13 he has a lot of responsibilities.

“My family cannot afford to send all of us to school, that is why I have to help my father at work. This is the only way my younger brothers and sisters can keep studying”.

Therefore, despite many difficulties, the students who can afford to come here are particularly grateful and show all their appreciation for having this opportunity. Boys and girls, who follow lessons in separate classes but share the recreation break together, explain how much they love history, chemistry but most of all learning new languages “We think is very important for our future being able to speak Turkish and English, especially for our professional careers”, they said, many of them in English.

Mardin school’s children all dream of becoming doctors, teachers or engineers. However, when asked where they would like to live, they all reply Syria. “We miss everything of our country, but most of all we want to go back for our family and friends”. 

 - Laura Cesaretti is an Italian freelance reporter specialised in Middle East and South Asia issues. She has a MA in International Politics from City University London and an MA in Journalism and Communication from Sapienza, University of Rome. She is currently based in southern Turkey, travelling along the Syrian border.