Syrian children in Turkey get education despite language challenges
By Najwa Mekki
URFA, Turkey, June 2013 – It is 10 o’clock in the morning and the children waiting in the front yard of the Information and Education Center for Syrian Guests school in Urfa are getting restless. They’re hot, thirsty and impatient to see what their new classrooms are like.
Yet they manage to sit politely and listen as the town officials welcome them to the school, and look on in anticipation the ribbon-cutting ceremony gets under way.
But when they are finally allowed to join their classrooms, they dash into the building and run up the stairs, their mothers in tow.
There are over 2,600 Syrians registered with the local authorities in Urfa, a city in southeastern Turkey close to the border with Syria. The exact number is thought to be much higher as many families remain unregistered.
And while these families are managing as best they can to cope with their daily situation, their children’s schooling remains one of their biggest concerns.
“It is crucial for these children to go to school so that they resume their learning and feel safe and protected while doing so,” says Ayman Abu-Laban, UNICEF’s Representative in Turkey. “But school is also a way of creating co-existence and harmony with the host community. After all, education is a value shared by all parents, no matter where they are from.”
Turkey has opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled the violence and conflict of their home country. It has also opened its schools to their children, offering them free education alongside their Turkish peers.
But many parents have been reluctant to take up this offer, seeing no point in introducing their children to a new curriculum in a new language that will not be recognized once they go back to Syria.
“Learning the Turkish language and going to school here is great for those who are going to stay on,” says Khadija, a mother of four who fled Damascus five months ago. “We have no such plans. We will go back to Syria as soon as the war is over.”
Until then, a school with Arabic-speaking teachers is what they want most for their children – and what UNICEF has duly provided.
“This is the first UNICEF-supported school that is fully dedicated to Syrian children in host communities,” says Abu-Laban. “The teachers are Syrian volunteers and Arabic is the language of instruction.”
Local authorities donated the building and UNICEF refurbished it and provided the necessary furniture and supplies. The school has a capacity of nearly 500 students and will operate in two shifts. Teachers are being selected among the Syrian community here.
While the Turkish government has taken the lead in running the 18 camps housing Syrian refugees, UNICEF has been stepping up its education response both inside the camps and out, providing school tents, furniture and supplies.
UNICEF has also been supporting Turkish language classes for older students to increase their chances of joining Turkish universities.
“There are thousands of teenagers and young people here who have had to forego their dreams of becoming doctors, teachers and engineers,” says Abu-Laban. “What future will they have if they are just sitting around in a refugee camp?”