Ahmed is seven years old. One month ago a rocket hit his home in Aleppo and Ahmed lost all family members but his father. He also lost his two arms. Two months earlier, Mohamed, also seven, also in Aleppo, too lost his family in a rocket attack, but Mohamed didn’t lose his arms, instead he lost his two legs. The boys’ fathers Dirgam and Salah, hoping for a better future for their sons came to Turkey and today they live under the same roof in Fatih, one of the city’s oldest neighbourhoods and home to a growing number of Syrian refugees. Ahmed and Mohamed are two of the one million Syrian refugees expected to be residing in Turkey in 2014, according to The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Of these, 795,000 are believed to be children, half a million in school-going age. “The idea of a lost generation is very much a reality,” says researcher Raaj Salooja.
“In the camps most children are enrolled in schools,” explains Dr. Xanthe Ackerman. Outside the camps the reality is different. The Turkish government works with UNHCR and UNICEF to make sure education is offered in the refugee camps. Yet, in 2012 and 2013, only about 60 percent of the children in primary school-age were accessing schooling. Many of the displaced boys and girls have already lost around three years of education and the situation is even worse for the estimated 636 000 children living outside the refugee camps. Here, in the so-called host communities, only around 14 percent are enrolled in primary school.
Ahmed and Mohamed are among the 86 percent not attending school. A Syrian Professor, Farah, comes to teach the boys once a week, but because of their need of rehabilitation, school is out of the question. “I hope I can get Ahmed and Mohamed into a school when they get better,” says Shady Eed, a 27-year old Master student, who helped the two boys arrive safely in Turkey. Eed has also helped open a school for 600 kids in his home Tilalyan, a village 40 kilometres north of Aleppo. “Almost all schools are destroyed in Syria and the ones who have survived so far are housing refugees.” Education is not priority when people are simply trying to survive. “Nobody can focus on teaching now, people only focus on surviving, besides, even if they wanted to, they can’t find a safe place now, rockets hit anywhere,” he says.
But to Eed education is key for the future of Syria’s so called lost generation, “Focusing on education, I think, is the best we can do for Syria now.” He is currently working on a project bringing libraries to the Turkish refugee camps, “People have nothing to do in the camps. They are psychologically traumatised but with books they can at least focus on something else for a while,” Eed says. One library was brought to Nizip camp in Gaziantep province, “It was like a competition,” Eed explains enthusiastically, “I’ve finished this many books, I have finished more than you!” they competed. “It was like they were attacking the books,” Eed laughs. “We should use this power, we should fill these peoples’ time.”
But education is increasingly becoming a concern for the Turkish government. “What do you do with one million refugees, half being children, in terms of integrating them into the Turkish school system?” Salooja who has conducted research on Syrian refugees in Turkey, asks, and continues, “Them not being in schools is a problem but at the same time, I am not sure how the education system is going to be able to absorb all,” she says and asks, “and what about the language? Do you teach them Turkish?”
Education is now a question the Turkish government can’t ignore. “It’s a real issue for the Turkish government,” Saloojaa concludes. Approximately 70 percent of Syrian children outside camps are not accessing any form of education, reports the Syria Regional Response Plan 2014 Strategic Overview.
Technically, “if you as a Syrian refugee and you have received the temporary residence permit you can enrol your child as a guest,” explains Saloojaa. However, far from all Syrian refugees are able to receive the residency permit, as it requires the person to have a stamped Syrian passport.
The language barrier is another obstacle for many young Syrians. Among the refugees Saloojaa spoke to many want to learn Turkish but at the same time, “many have the mindset that they are going back and ask, so why should we learn Turkish?”
Another problem is money. “15 000 kids in Istanbul can’t go to school because they can’t afford the bus fare,” says Dr. Abdulrahman Kowara, manager at the Syrian Education Commission. The organisation provides 123 schools across the country with Syrian school material. A total of 5 million books have been offered to schools in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, of which 1 million have been distributed within Turkey.
The main problems the organisation faces include keeping up with the influx of refugees, finding buildings for the schools and paying teachers. “Now the classes can have around 60 children,” sights Kowara who has lived in Turkey since 1978. “We need assistance.”
In the urban areas finding buildings and land is difficult, sometimes the municipalities are willing to cooperate but there is no available land, which increases the pressure on each school, “Many schools are running wait lists,” explains Ackerman, “one school in Istanbul, just as an example, had 900 children enrolled and 900 on the waiting list.”
According to Ackerman the priority now should be to increase the coordination between municipalities, which are currently working primarily independently. “The Turkish and international community needs to recognise the large number of Syrian children who are out of school and establish a system that coordinates and regulates the education of these children.” Many schools outside the camps are managed by Syrian individuals or organizations independently, “The government is not hindering these schools but they are not pro-actively assisting them either,” she concludes.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.