Melvyn Ingleby
Last updated: 23 December, 2015

Syrians in Turkey: “Invest in schoolbooks, not border guards”

Entirely run by refugees themselves, Syrian schools in Istanbul keep children off the street, fight radicalization, preserve Syrian identity, and educate the generation that will one day have to rebuild the homeland. But governments, in the region and beyond, seem to be ignoring these important grassroots initiatives.

Along the Aegean coast, Turkey is rehearsing its commitment to European interests. Just under 3,000 refugees were arrested at the start of this month, and random crackdowns continue to loom. The EU wants it so. If Turkey is to get $3.3 billion in EU aid for refugees, it has to stop them coming to Europe. 

In Istanbul, Shaza Barakat has a different take on the crisis. “They just don’t get it”, she sighs. “We don’t even want to come to Europe! They treat us as intruders, but we are refugees. We want to stay close to home.” To Shaza, who runs a school for Syrians in the working class neighborhood of Esenler, the main reason why people are nonetheless piling into rubber boats is obvious. “It’s all about education. These people can cope with a lot, we Syrians got used to that. But without any prospects, life becomes unbearable.” 

The 50-year old Syrian head teacher speaks from bitter experience. After fleeing Damascus in 2011, she desperately tried to find education for her son in Istanbul. “We asked everywhere. But there was no place at the local Turkish school, and the Saudi school simply rejected all refugee children.” As a result, the then 16-year old Omar was stuck at home, and saw no better option but to return to Syria. Two months later, he was detained, tortured and dismembered by Assad’s forces. 

Determined to save others from a similar fate, Shaza decided to found her own school. “If we don’t educate our children, they are lost. They grow up with resentment towards society, towards the government, towards life. They become prey to child labor, see no future, and try their luck elsewhere. That’s what happened to Omar.” But Shaza does not like getting personal. “This is not about my son”, she insists. “It’s about taking responsibility. I’m simply fed up with our children dying in the streets, returning to fight in Syria, or freezing in the Mediterranean.” 

Shamuna: “Our Syria”. It’s not just the name of Shaza’s school that reminds of home. Tuition is in Arabic, and children use old Syrian schoolbooks (with all references to the Assad family blacked out). As the head teacher inspects her classrooms, children jump up from their seats. “Yallah”, one of them shouts, getting others to sing with him. Thirty high-pitched voices bawl the words of Syrian poet Qahtan Bayrakdar: “Syria, may God protect you. I will not, I cannot, forget my fatherland, because with it, my heart blossoms!”

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Shaza smiles. “This is the generation that will rebuild our country.” Aside from upholding the hope of return, there are more reasons to keep Syrian children together. “I went to a Turkish school before”, tells 15-year old Abbas. “But I did not understand the language and the kids bullied me. It was strange being an outsider all the time.” At Shamuna, students learn Turkish as well as English, but do so without feeling excluded.

This makes schools like Shaza’s hugely popular. At the moment, it provides education to 976 students. An enormous achievement, but not the only one: all over the city, Syrian refugees have set up their own schools, usually relying entirely on themselves. “We just got together with a group of Syrian teachers”, Shaza explains. “We rented out a building, bought books, tables, chairs – everything a school needs.” She feels the Turkish government has done little to help her. “They offered me an empty school building during the evenings. But who sends their kids to school at night?” Instead, she decided to pay 22,000 Turkish liras (around $7,400) a month to rent out a dimly lit 5-storey building block. Her funds come mainly from private donators, nearly all of them Syrian.

A woman steps into the head office. After a bit of small talk, she summons her courage to make an announcement. “Ayoub can’t come to school anymore,” she says softly. “It’s the bus.” The other Syrians in the room immediately understand what she means. With four children, and a 5 lira ($1,7) bus fare to get to school and back, this mother pays 600 liras ($200) a month in bus fares. For many Syrian refugees in Istanbul, that’s close to an entire month’s wage.  

Shaza quickly fetches a big notebook from her desk. In it, never-ending tables containing names, numbers and scribbles. “This happens a lot, you see,” she explains. “In this book I keep track of exceptional cases. If people really can’t pay tuition or have other problems, I take that into account.” Noting down the bus fare next to Ayoub’s name, Shaza reassures the embarrassed mother: “Don’t worry, we’ll find a solution.” 

Yet as soon as the office is empty again, resilience gives way to frustration. “Can’t you see what is happening here?” she exclaims. “What more can we do? We work all day to make a normal living, we pay for everything ourselves, but it’s never enough.” In reality, Shaza’s notebook doesn’t reflect the ‘exceptions’ but the rule: only 40 of her 976 students can pay the full tuition fee of $10 a month.

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Shaza feels abandoned. “We are here because of war, but people treat us like criminals. Any time I ask for help from the local authorities, they look at me with suspicion. They take ages to get back to me about anything.” As for responses from abroad, she is even more embittered. “Until recently, we received a lot of funding from Islamic charity organizations. But after the attacks in Paris and all this paranoia about Muslim extremism, they were banned from sending money to Turkey. Is this how you fight terrorism?” 

It’s a bitter paradox. The Shazas of this world are fulfilling both EU and Turkish policy makers’ wildest dreams. They keep children off the street, prevent them from going to Europe, fight child labor and radicalization, and train a generation to rebuild a country that others have destroyed. Despite all this, it has not occurred to anyone in government to support Shaza’s initiatives. 

According to Turkish anthropologist Şenay Özden, the problem lies in the way we approach refugees. “There is a type of hierarchical thinking that separates refugees from their host society. Even if we want to ‘help’ them, our idea of help is bordering on that of charity. It means that refugees are dependent on citizens, rather than being able to participate in society themselves.” In this way, the agency of people like Shaza cannot come to full fruition.

To change this, she argues, Turkey has to acknowledge the permanent nature of this crisis. At the moment, 2,2 million Syrians are in Turkey as ‘guests’. The government has invested billions in building refugee camps and providing humanitarian aid. But after four years, remaining a guest becomes a little awkward. Unsurprisingly, 85% of Syrians have instead tried to take control of their own lives in the country’s various cities. Without more legal rights, however, they find themselves in a limbo. “Turkey has done a lot, let’s not forget that. But it has to move to the next stage. The government needs to establish an infrastructure where Syrians are not dependent on citizens but where they can work and build their own lives.”

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In theory, the $3.3 billion EU aid package to Turkey offers the ideal opportunity for such a change of policy. But Özden is unconvinced. “As far as I know, there is no public information about how this money is going to be spent. I fear that the EU’s main motivation is just to prevent Syrians from getting to Europe. In the past few weeks, many arrests were made. We even hear some Syrians have been forced to sign voluntary return papers, a coveted way of deporting them back to Syria. I don’t know what relation there is between these actions and the current negotiations.” 

One thing is clear to Özden. “As a result of this deal, the EU is now co-responsible and should be held accountable for any kind of rights violations concerning refugees in Turkey. It really pisses me off. All these European journalists ask me if Erdoğan ‘can be trusted’. Let them question their own politicians first. They are the ones who bribed Erdoğan into this.” 

Kati Piri, the European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, dismisses Özden’s suspicions. “None of this money will be spent on border security; we have made clear agreements about this. Our top priorities are putting Syrians into work and into education.” Yet when asked if she knows how the Turkish government will realize its stated goal of getting 270,000 Syrian children into education by January 2016, the answer remains vague. “Negotiations are ongoing. I imagine they are working on this, but I don’t know how exactly.”

Shaza does have a couple of suggestions. “If they really don’t want us to come to Europe, they need to invest in schoolbooks, not border guards.” More importantly, she wants to be an active part of the solution. “I don’t want these kids to leave either. Let them speak to me. Of course more money is a good thing, but Syrians themselves should have a say in how to spend it. We are talented people, you know. Refugees only become beggars if you treat them as such.”