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Syrian girls fight poverty and tradition as they seek education in Turkey

In Turkey, tens of thousands of Syrian girls cannot go to school - often because they must help their families or because they are married off
As their families face financial strain, many Syrian refugee girls end up begging or working to help make ends meet (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey - Every morning, Maya comes in to work in a small hair salon in Istanbul’s historical Eyup neighbourhood. From 9am until 6pm, she busies herself bringing necessary equipment to the barbers, sweeping the floors and bringing water or coffee to the customers - none of whom realise that the 12-year-old girl is Syrian.

Maya has learned Turkish very quickly since she started working at the salon three years earlier, after a year spent begging on the streets.

Thousands of other Syrian girls in Turkey are not going to school either, whether because they have started working or because they've been forced into marriage at an early age.

As students across Turkey returned to school this week, some 350,000 Syrians between the ages of six and 18 are out of education in the country, according to a UNICEF humanitarian situation report that points to endemic poverty, language barriers and trauma as just some of the obstacles standing between Syrian children and Turkish schools. 

From Aleppo to the streets of Istanbul

Turkey is home to the largest number of refugees, migrants and asylum seekers in the world, standing at almost four million as of April 2018. Nearly 3.6 million are Syrian refugees, of whom 1.7 million are children.

Among them are Maya and her family - seven of her siblings, her father, and his two wives - who fled the northeastern Syrian city of Aleppo for Turkey in 2014, moving in with an aunt in an apartment in Eyup.

The girl’s two oldest brothers were left behind in Syria to join opposition groups fighting against pro-Bashar al-Assad forces. Only later did news reach Istanbul that both brothers had been killed.

After arriving in Turkey, Maya’s stepmother fell very ill, leaving her mother to take care of the children while her father and brother worked in construction. Money was tight, as the family struggled to feed 11 people on two meagre salaries.

It was then that Maya, eight years old at the time, and her then 12-year-old sister Nour started to beg on the streets of Istanbul in hopes of contributing to the family’s livelihood.

According to the UN Population Fund, early marriage often becomes an 'economic coping mechanism' for refugee families in dire financial straits - albeit with dire consequences for young girls

After a year of seeing the two girls beg in front of a neighbourhood mosque, Buket Erisik, the 60-year-old Turkish owner of a hair salon, stepped in.

“I always walk by the mosque when I close the shop and go home at night, and I would see these two girls every night in front of the mosque,” Erisik told Middle East Eye. “I didn’t want to meddle in their family affairs, but I felt very sad every time I saw them - two little girls on the street, God knows what will happen to them.

“One night, it was snowing and it was so cold that I was freezing in my overcoat, and they were still there! That was the point where I decided not to wait anymore,” she remembers. 

Erisik took Maya and Nour indoors, fed them soup, asked them about their situation - and decided to give both young girls jobs to keep them off the streets.

Slim chances for school

When she first met with Maya and Nour’s parents, Erisik asked their father why his daughters were out begging instead of studying.

“They didn’t want either of their children to go to school, they put the burden on their shoulders to make money,” the salon owner said. “And after a certain age, they force their daughters to get married.

A young Syrian girl attends class in Turkey's Sanliurfa province in December 2015 (AFP)

“When I saw there was no way for these girls to go to school after I spoke to their father, I asked him how much money they made. Now I am paying them the amount he told me,” she added.

“But I am pretty sure they will take Nour and force her to marry very soon. She is already 16 years old, and the only reason they haven’t done that before is that she makes good money here.”

Nour declined to speak in depth to MEE about her situation. 

While the teenager said she was not particularly eager at the idea of continuing her studies, her younger sister Maya still dreamed of going back to school.

When she brought up the issue to her family, Maya’s mother told her that she could only attend classes if she continued to work after school - a condition the young girl agreed to.

I could only go on for three months. Then I returned back to the streets the next morning.

- Maya, Syrian girl in Istanbul

But Maya faced an unpleasant surprise when she first tried to register for classes in Turkey in 2014. She was told that, because she was on the records as being 13 years old, she was expected to enter seventh grade.

Only problem: the Syrian girl was in fact eight, and hoping to start third grade. But her protestations were in vain.

“There was nothing I could do, so I started seventh grade,” Maya told MEE. “But they were teaching very heavy maths, and some history that I didn’t know. I could only go on for three months.

“Then I returned back to the streets the next morning.”

The reason why Turkish authorities erroneously thought she was five years older than her actual age turned out to be quite grim, Erisik explained to MEE.

Upon entering the country, the Turkish woman found out, Maya’s parents had told officials that all of their minor daughters were older than their actual age.

She suspects that this deception may have been an attempt to circumvent Turkish laws, which forbid marriage for minors younger than 17.

According to the UN Population Fund, early marriage often becomes an “economic coping mechanism” for refugee families in dire financial straits - albeit with dire consequences for young girls, who become more vulnerable to abuse, face heightened risks during pregnancy, and often see themselves deprived of further schooling.

While the scope of the early marriage phenomenon in Turkey remains unknown, the country was shaken earlier this year by the revelation that a hospital in Istanbul had witnessed more than 100 teenage pregnancies - including at least 39 Syrian girls - in the span of only a few months. This, after all, is a region in which childbirth outside of wedlock remains rare. 

A struggle to reach university

While Maya remains determined to one day pick up where she left off in third grade, some young Syrian refugee women and girls have been able to pursue their education until university level in Turkey - despite numerous setbacks. Fatima Abdulrezzak, 22, is one of them.

In 2012, she fled the Syrian city of Latakia with her mother and two sisters, leaving their father behind until 2015, when he joined his family in the Turkish border city of Gaziantiep.

“Gaziantep was the best city for Syrians to make money back in 2012, so we stayed there,” Abdulrezzak told MEE. “I knew I had to go to school. I had already completed half of my high school education in Syria. But we couldn’t think about it - we didn’t even know if we would stay in Turkey or go back home soon.”

At 16, Abdulrezzak said she was working in a store 12 hours a day. After a year in Gaziantep, her family came to terms with the fact that the war in Syria wouldn’t end anytime soon.

University should be the most amazing and relaxing times of somebody’s life, but it wasn’t like that for us. Our lives were cut in half

- Nourhan Alo, recent Syrian graduate from METU university

“As my mom and sisters continued to work, I insisted on going to school,” the young woman said.

At the time Syrians weren’t admitted into Turkish public schools. Abdulrezzak joined a recently opened high school in Gaziantep that taught the Syrian curriculum, from which she graduated.

As a Syrian Turkmen, she already knew the basics of the Turkish language, but she still needed to learn the alphabet and grammar to reach the level of fluency necessary in order to apply for universities.

After taking Turkish courses, Abdulrezzak was admitted into Selcuk University in the city of Konya in central Anatolia, with a scholarship.

Fatima Abdulrezzak graduated from Selcuk University in Konya in June (MEE)

Earlier this year, Abdulrezzak graduated with a degree in journalism and now works as a freelance fixer for foreign media in Turkey and Syria - and she credits the support of her family for her getting there.

“If they had approached me as many Syrians approach their daughters, I would probably be working in the same store for little money now,” she said. “But now, I can support Syrians’ cause, I can be the voice of Syrians and defend our rights all around the world. Studying was the only option for me to survive outside of my country, and to be able to return when possible.”

“The biggest problem for Syrian girls in Turkey is education,” Abdulrezzak added. “Families don’t think of it as a priority because of poverty, and they prefer that their daughters get married at an early age, even before they are 17. But if they really want to, there are a lot of opportunities for them to go to school.”

'Education is your weapon'

Nourhan Alo is another young Syrian woman who said she was lucky enough to have the support of her parents in continuing her studies, after fleeing Afrin in 2013 for the Turkish border province of Hatay.

Having dropped out of Aleppo University - where she was studying economics - in 2012 because of the war, Alo joined a foreign NGO in Hatay providing aid to Syrian children.

In 2014, having come to terms with the fact that she would not be able to go back home anytime soon, Alo decided to return to her studies.

For Syrian girls, even social norms that were difficult for us in Syria get more difficult now in Turkey because we are strangers here

- Nourhan Alo, recent Syrian graduate from METU university

She was eventually accepted into the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, one of the best universities in Turkey - and was one of only a handful of women among the 30 Syrian students there.

“My parents always told me education is the most important thing in our lives,” she told MEE. “It had felt so unfair that I had to drop out of university and leave my friends. Some of them left home, some of them died.

“You know, university should be the most amazing and relaxing times of somebody’s life, but it wasn’t like that for us. Our lives were cut in half,” she said. “That’s why I always wanted to continue and graduate, and I felt very happy when I was back in the university in Turkey.”

Through her work with the foreign NGO in Hatay, Alo saw firsthand the obstacles lying in the way of many young Syrian women and girls seeking to pursue their education.

“I see a lot of Syrian girls either have to work or get married early, a lot!” she said. “When I saw the Syrian children we helped in the NGO - pregnant when they were 14 or 15 years old - I felt so bad.

“Early marriage happened before in Syria of course, but after coming to Turkey, their economic situations got worse and girls have been forced into it more. For Syrian girls, even social norms that were difficult for us in Syria get more difficult now in Turkey because we are strangers here.”

Nourhan Alo gives a message to Syrian girls during her graduation ceremony from METU, in Ankara. (Photo courtesy of Gazete Duvar)

Alo said she fervently believed in the power of education for Syrian girls.

“I think that if you are able to obtain education as a girl, this empowers you, this protects you from early marriage and from being used. It even protects you from yourself, because you become more enlightened,” she said. “It’s your weapon.”

It was with all these thoughts in mind that Alo carried a banner at her university graduation ceremony that read: “If I can... each little Syrian girl can.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.