Thousands of Syrian refugee youths are deprived of a formal education.
Ahmet Basa, a quiet, wide-eyed 11-year-old refugee from Damascus, Syria, speaks Turkish fluently and has big plans for the future. “I want to be a doctor,” he said, sitting with a teacher after school in the province of Sanliurfa in Turkey’s southeast.
Two years ago, Ahmet crossed over from Syria by car with his six siblings and his parents. Three of his uncles came later. The family was relatively fortunate, they already had relatives in Turkey and Ahmet had begun learning Turkish on previous trips.
“They told me we’d stay six months, and that when the war ended we’d go back. It has been two years,” he said. Ahmet attends a public school that is walking distance from his new home. His father works at a pastry shop, and his mother stays at home, because she speaks only Arabic. Ahmet’s sister attends a religious vocational school, known as imam-hatip.
Turkey is host to 1.5 million Syrian refugees, but the number is expected to rise to 1.7 million in 2015, according to the United Nations Agency for Refugees.
“Turkey at the beginning of the crisis in 2011 didn’t want much international assistance, it was confident it could handle it, but then the numbers grew,” said Metin Corabatir, director of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration, a think tank based in Ankara, Turkey.
In a recent statement, Numan Kurtulmus, a deputy prime minister, said Turkey had misjudged the extent of the Syrian crisis. “Unfortunately, we thought the Syrian refugees were here temporarily, that they would arrive and leave in a few months,” the statement said. “But after three and a half years of this civil war, it looks like they will remain here.”
Corabatir agreed. “Nobody expected it would last this long,” he said. “The reality now is that the Turks have to learn how to live” side by side with the refugees, he said.
Ahmet has reunited with several of his old friends in these new neighbourhoods. Since they do not speak Turkish as well as he does, he teaches them new words he learns at school.
His teacher, Halil Balikcioglu, has been teaching music for 35 years. In his classes at the Sanliurfa Cultural and Artistic Education and Research Foundation, he teaches traditional Turkish tunes. Ahmet joined a year ago.
“From birth to death, through joy and suffering, music accompanies us,” he said. “We don’t like war, but war has brought us Ahmet.”
“Because of the conflict, the children are behind in their education, they miss out on their childhood,” he added.
But more recent arrivals have it even harder. Some 192,417 Syrian Kurds came to Turkey from Kobani in mid-September fleeing the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, according to Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority, known by its Turkish acronym AFAD. About 70,000 of them shelter at this predominantly Kurdish border town of Suruc, 45km from Sanliurfa. Five tent camps occupy the side roads of Suruc.
“These camps were created by local municipalities,” Corabatir said. “AFAD is constructing a new camp with larger capacity,” he said.
Other refugees have taken shelter in nearby villages and around the city centre, in spaces made available by locals; apartments shared with other families; or empty stores and buildings still under construction.
In the camps, the narrow alleys have become the children’s playground; within each camp, sealed off by a wire fence, they can run freely, their shoes packed with mud. As the cold settles in, the drizzling rain seeps into their tents.
In the camps, there are about 40 teachers for more than 1,000 students ages six to 10, inhabitants estimate. All the teachers are volunteers, and refugees themselves. Classes focus on drawing and music to help ease the trauma; writing and mathematics are taught when books are available.
Language is a barrier. These refugees speak Kurdish so cannot attend public schools where only Turkish is spoken.
“The impact of war and the tragedy they have witnessed is terrible,” Corabatir said. He said there was an urgent need for an education system that could absorb these children and bring some normalcy to their lives.
The Arin Mirkan Tent Camp shelters more than 3,000 refugees in 450 tents. It is named after a Kurdish female suicide bomber who detonated herself at an Islamic State checkpoint in Kobani, killing many jihadists. Six-year-old Ahmed Osman, whose father is fighting on the other side of the border, lives there, but does not yet go to school. When asked about his father’s whereabouts, he replied proudly, “at war in Kobani.”
“He is there to kill Daesh, so we can return home,” he said, using the Arabic name of Islamic State. Ahmed said he dreamed of becoming a fighter with YPG, a Kurdish militant group.
On a dark night this month, shoes were piled up at the entrance of a tent music hall. A dozen children sang and played the tambourine in a circle. The electricity was out – again – and beams from flashlights danced left and right in the air. The instructor Mehmed, a volunteer, is himself a refugee from Kobani.
Another tent camp, Kader Ortakaya, is named after a 28-year-old Kurdish female activist from Turkey who was reported to have been shot in the head by a Turkish soldier during protests at the border last month.
SES, a health and social services union, has recently published a report on its website calling for health and hygiene regulations to be established quickly for these new camps to ensure that water is purified and heating is provided to avoid the spread of disease. An education tent has been erected, but because of a lack of desks and seats, classes have not begun.
Rooden Mehdin, a petite 20-year-old, is a refugee and a volunteer teacher at the Rojava tent camp, which shelters more than 1,100 people. Before the war, she studied psychology at a university, but was forced to abandon her studies because of the conflict.
“These children need some sense of normalcy,” she said. “When they look back, they shouldn’t say 'I never got to be a child.’ Without access to education, these children could stray, and we want to prevent that. I want them to know that they can attain a bright future, despite everything.”
There are 25 students in her tent classroom, varying in age. On a gray morning this month, they were drawing in small notebooks on wooden tables, the floor covered with colourful tapestry and a few balloons tied to the steel frame that holds up the tent.
When she returns to Kobani, Mehdin wants to continue teaching. “I’ve taught here under these circumstances, why would I not do it back home?”
One of her students, Bashir, eight, said he enjoyed coming to school. “My favourite lesson is writing,” he said with a shy smile. “I want to be a teacher.”
On a recent visit to Suruc, Ayla Akat, a member of the Turkish Parliament from the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party said, “Building a strong future takes time. It might take generations, but it has to start now. Education is key.” – International New York Times