Fulya Ozerkan, AFP
Last updated: 23 October, 2014

Kobane’s children learn Turkish to sound of shelling

If they let their eyes wander from the blackboard, a handful of children from Kobane can watch their town being bombarded from the windows of their new Turkish school.

The thud of battle for the besieged Syrian border town can be clearly heard in the classrooms of the village school just 400 metres from the frontier, where children struggling to get their heads around being made refugees, must now learn not just a new language but a new alphabet as well.

The teacher stands next to the blackboard, teaching first his usual pupils in Turkish. Then he approaches the refugee children, speaking with them in Kurdish, and begins to explain the basics of Turkish.

School is continuing — where possible — for the children among the estimated 200,000 refugees who have fled the assault by Islamic State (IS) jihadists on the mainly Kurdish town of Kobane for the relative security of Turkey.

But the challenges are huge in Cengelli’s village school — the children do not speak Turkish, the language in which all state education must be conducted in Turkey, even in Kurdish populated regions like the southeast.

No one knows how long the children will stay, it could be weeks or years. Their first big obstacle is the Latin alphabet used in Turkey, having been taught the Arabic script back home in Syria.

– Turned away –

It helps that most of the refugees and Turkish locals on the other side of the border are Kurds, with a shared language and heritage.

After getting a roof over their heads — and almost every house in the village has taken in Syrian families — the refugees’ next priority is usually to enrol their children in school so that they can be taught Turkish and be guaranteed at least one meal a day.

But the village school of 240 pupils can only admit limited numbers and has had to turn many refugee children away.

“Syrian parents want to enrol their children but we have restricted resources, and there are not enough rooms to teach them in. We are trying hard to engage students in large classes of 40 to 50 students,” the school’s principal Kamil Kurultak told AFP.

“They want to speak Turkish but they have serious adaptation problems. Teachers are trying to guide them in Kurdish as they can speak Kurdish.”

Teaching in Kurdish is a very sensitive political issue in Turkey. An Indo-European language very different to Turkish, Kurdish was long banned in schools although recent reforms have allowed limited use of the language in private institutions.

A key Kurdish grievance, activists say children have been held back by being taught in their second language.

Inda, a 10-year-old Syrian girl sits next to two other refugee children on a bench. “I come here, speak with friends and have lunch,” she said. “I want to have books but I don’t know when they will hand them out.”

“We used to have a beautiful house and a school. We fled here because of the war,” she added.

Under normal circumstances, she would have continued fourth grade in Kobane but here she studies with second graders.

“I want to get back to Kobane. I am missing my friends and my school.”

Sitting next to her in the same bench, Emira echoed: “I want to go back.”

– ‘Kids don’t talk about war’ –

One teacher Mehmet Celik said talking about the war is hard for many of the children.

“Most of them do not want to talk about the situation in Kobane… They just say they fled.”

He points to a corner of the class where pictures drawn by the children are hung on the wall. One by Inda shows a house surrounded by trees, the sun shining.

Local official Fatih Ciftci told AFP that the authorities were doing their best to provide the children with some kind of education.

He said those refugees staying in refugee camps — which Turkey prefers to refer to as tent cities — would be provided with education on site.

However with so many refugees finding accommodation with fellow Kurds on the Turkish side, many thousands of children may be slipping through the net.

“We cannot provide education according to the Syrian curriculum. We will teach them Turkish language,” Ciftci said.

He said there was a coordination centre in the regional centre of Sanliurfa to tackle the education problems facing the refugees.

Syrians without a temporary residence permit “will be accepted as guest students, so that their education will go uninterrupted. But this will be a temporary measure,” he added.