Enrolled in school, engaged in life…

Through the Support for School Enrolment (SSE) programme, UNICEF continues to support children in Turkey to have increased access to age-appropriate education opportunities.

29 December 2021

Muhammed (14) and Meryem (8) are doing their homework, sitting across from each other at a shared desk, in the only bedroom of their apartment. “We don’t get much homework, but when we do it, I finish mine first!” says Muhammed teasingly. “I am not at all competing with my brother” says Meryem indifferently. The two siblings have a very special bond. “We do everything together. We share the housework, and I walk Meryem to school before I catch my school bus” says Muhammed.

Muhammed and Meryem’s parents welcome us in the living room of their plainly furnished apartment in Güngören, a densely populated, small industrial and working-class residential district of Istanbul. The area consists of many narrow streets lined with six or seven-story apartment buildings close to each other. The standard of living in the area is modest, with several poorly lit muddy roads lined with factories.  “I don’t let them out of my sight” says Davud Sarhaboun as he explains how he worries for his children’s safety. “They can play in front of the apartment, but they are not allowed to the park.”


Before moving to Turkey, Sarhaboun family’s life was very different. In 2013, the then family of four became one of the five million Syrian refugees who escaped the conflict and the worsening humanitarian situation in Syria.  Hoping for safety and better opportunities, Davud Sarhaboun made the risky journey to Turkey. The family travelled across Turkey in a large group, all the way from Kilis border, into İstanbul.

“I used to own a butcher shop and a kebab restaurant in Afrin, Syria.” Davud reminisced proudly.  “One day, it was all destroyed.” he says. “Hacer’s mother passed away a couple of years ago. We couldn’t go back to visit our relatives. Neighbours told us not to come. The roads are destroyed, and it is not safe.”

When the family first arrived in İstanbul, they rented an empty old retail shop with three other families. They were 18 people all together including the elderly. Each family took one corner of the empty space, and all three shared one bathroom. Davud started to look for work and accepted whatever job he could find for very little money. “It was very difficult. I didn’t speak any Turkish. Nobody wanted to hire me. After trying different jobs, I found a job at a Kebab restaurant again. Things were different this time, I was no longer the owner of the place.” he says.

When Muhammed and Meryem first arrived in Turkey, Muhammed was unable to enrol in the first grade due to difficulties with obtaining a temporary protection identity card. Luckily, with the support of UNICEF’s partner the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM), the family was able to obtain their identity card and Muhammed was registered in school and started his education. “At first, they didn’t like me at school because I was coming from a different place. I also didn’t speak the language. I had no friends. There were five other boys like me who came from Syria. I became friends with them. But I am lucky because I really like Turkish a lot and I was able to learn it very quickly. This helped me make more friends.”

When Meryem reached school-age, she was also unable to enrol in first grade, but this time due to her family’s poor financial situation which has been exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. “The school was closed anyways so I stopped sending them.  I sent them to work at their uncle’s cobbler shop. We needed some money” says Davud. When asked about his experience, Muhammed says “I didn’t like working there. I was putting shoes in plastic bags all day. It was boring.” His sister Meryem adds, “I hated the smell of the place, it was really disturbing”.   

During this time, ASAM’s outreach teams were conducting field screening in their neighbourhood to identify out-of-school children as part of UNICEF’s Support for School Enrollment (SSE) programme. The teams identified Muhammed and Meryem as being both out of school and engaged in child labour. Upon an assessment of the children’s education status, necessary counselling was provided to the family on the negative impacts and risks of child labour and the social and developmental importance of education for their children. Following a series of referrals and support activities, the family was convinced to stop sending their children to work. The family was also informed about the distance education modality through Ministry of National Education’s EBA (Education Information Network) Centers. The father also signed up in the school’s WhatsApp group and started receiving messages from the children’s teacher about their classes. The children started to follow their classes remotely and do their homework at home.


The SSE team continued to follow-up on Mohammed and Meryem’s education and provided support when it was time to enrol in school in the new school year (2021-2022) that started on September 6, 2021. Both Muhammed and Meryem currently attend in-person classes on a regular basis.


The two siblings, happy to attend school, come home every day and prepare for the next day. After homework, they pack their school bags and help with chores around the house. “They are my little helpers” says Hacer, “they do everything together. They like to put the caps on the bottles when I finish filling the water. They also take care of their little brother Ekrem and play with him outside. I am so thankful for these joyous children.”

Hacer, (36), thinks the most important thing for her children is to receive quality education. She herself, always dreamt of becoming a pharmacist but was married before she could complete secondary school. “I want them both to finish university. Hopefully at least one of them can become a pharmacist and live my dream” she says while laughing. When we ask the children; Muhammed says he wants to become a physical education teacher and Meryem also wants to become a teacher.

The Support for School Enrollment (SSE) programme enables the most vulnerable refugee children in Turkey to access formal and non-formal education programmes. It is implemented in a close partnership between UNICEF, the Ministry of National Education (MoNE) and the Association for Solidarity with Asylum Seekers and Migrants (ASAM) and was made possible thanks to the generous support of the EU - European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.