Issue 59 - Article 12

Schooling in a crisis: the case of Syrian refugees in Turkey

November 27, 2013
Selin Yildiz Nielsen and Mark A. Grey
Volunteer Syrian teachers confer in a classroom tent erected in an abandoned warehouse at the Islahiye refugee camp in Turkey

The Syrian civil war has created one of the largest and most intense episodes of human suffering of the early twenty-first century. The uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which began in March 2011, was widely recognised as part of the ‘Arab Spring’ that saw popular uprisings against dictatorships in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. When the rebellion began it was limited to relatively small, local skirmishes, but as the fighting has intensified so the numbers of internally displaced people and refugees have risen sharply.

Turkey, which shares a 900-kilometre border with Syria, began receiving refugees in small numbers in the summer of 2011, but it did not take long for these numbers to escalate; by June 2013, the Turkish Foreign Ministry estimated the total number of refugees who had registered or who had appointments to register had reached 387,883, with 200,039 living in government camps and 164,143 living in rented apartments, with friends and relatives or, in some cases, in informal camps in border towns. With no end in sight to the civil war, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) anticipates the displacement of 3.5 million Syrians, with as many as 1m seeking refuge in Turkey by 2014.

Turkey’s efforts to meet the needs of refugees have been spearheaded by the Afet ve Acil Durum Yonetimi Baskanligi (AFAD, the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency of Turkey). Between 2011 and the summer of 2013, AFAD built 20 camps in ten provinces, at a cost of about $1.5 billion. Some are tented, while others comprise 8mx3m prefabricated containers containing two rooms and a bathroom. As is typically the case, the majority of refugees are women and, especially, children; of the 200,000 refugees in Turkish camps, about 60% are children.

Given the large number of children in the refugee population, camp directors recognised early on the need to establish schools for Syrian children of all ages. To provide education, a number of critical challenges had to be met. The first was the physical establishment of schools themselves. As the director of the Nizip Tent Camp told us, when he arrived at the camp in the spring of 2012 the space designated for his school was an empty, dusty lot located in a former construction site for a dam on the Euphrates River. It was left to him to find tents, wooden flooring, carpets and paving bricks, desks, chairs, drawing boards, teaching aids and, of course, textbooks. ‘When I started here,’ he reflected, ‘there wasn’t even a chair for me to sit on.’ Many of the resources were acquired through AFAD channels and the Turkish Red Crescent; others were found by calling in favours and, to use his own word, ‘begging’. The result was a set of ten large tents with floors, electricity, drawing boards and, in some cases, computer projectors. Climate control consisted of large fans when the heat of the Turkish summer kicked in.

Education directors in other tent camps we met faced similar challenges in setting up the physical infrastructure for schools. In Islahiye Camp, large tents were set up in a former warehouse, whose concrete walls blocked the sun and heat. Electric lights were installed to compensate for the darker location. The pre-school director in Islahiye Camp used empty office and storage space in the warehouse to house five rooms full of loud young children. Indeed, in all of the camp schools we visited the preschools enjoyed the largest proportion of age-group participation.

Although the camp schools are administered by Turks, their curricula are not recognised or sanctioned by the Turkish education authorities, and so licenced Turkish teachers cannot be assigned to them. The lack of qualified Turkish teachers means that camp education directors rely heavily on volunteers from among the refugees themselves. Some were teachers in Syria, but most are not. As volunteers they are not bound by hard and fast schedules or any particular curriculum, so their time and instruction with the children is often inconsistent. Some volunteer teachers receive periodic in-service training, including training on trauma.

Even if qualified Turkish teachers were assigned to camp schools, they would not be able to teach in Arabic, the language spoken by refugee children and their parents. One of the principal challenges for refugees and the Turkish authorities alike has been the lack of Syrians who speak Turkish, and Turks who speak Arabic. There is little incentive for parents to commit their children to learning a new language which will be of little help to them when or if they return to Syria. Nor is there any guarantee that learning and studying Turkish will advance their children’s education or career in Turkey.

Closely related to the issue of language is the curriculum. Even if the camp schools use elements of the official Turkish curriculum, students from camp schools cannot readily transfer to commensurate levels to at Turkish schools. Conversely, if the curriculum and instruction in the camp schools were recognised by the Turkish authorities, the language and curriculum are not accepted in Syria. Teenage students in the camps generally do not have access to the secondary schooling that would help them enter universities in Turkey or, for a variety of reasons, in Syria. Indeed, one source of tension between Syrian parents and the Turkish authorities has been the Syrian demand for special classes for advanced students whose preparations for university entrance exams were interrupted by the war.

In light of the limitations of the camp schools, Syrian schools have opened outside of the camps with funding from the local government, using the Syrian curriculum and books salvaged from Syrian schools and reproduced. The best examples are in Gaziantep, where elementary and secondary Syrian schools were opened to serve the needs of educated and well-off refugees and their children. In theory, these parents, while enjoying the relative comfort of not living in crowded refugee camps, are hedging their bets that, at some point in the near future, their older children will be prepared for university entry exams in a ‘New Syria’.

The emergence of some private Syrian schools in Turkey is another point of contention between Syrian refugee parents and Turkish education officials, namely Syrian demands for the separation of the sexes in classrooms. Most Syrian parents do not approve of the Turkish insistence on placing boys with girls in the same classroom, especially teenagers. Syrian parents also tend to insist that their daughters wear headscarves (hijab) in public and in schools, while it is illegal for Turkish teenage girls to cover their hair at school. With their own private schools, parents can control the separation of the sexes, and insist that girls wear the hijab.

Tensions over the separation of the sexes, curriculum and language of instruction are compounded by the politics of Syrians’ refugee status. As Syrians poured into Jordan, the Jordanian government asked UNHCR to recognise and register these newcomers as refugees. By contrast, the Turkish government chose not to officially recognise the Syrians as refugees as defined by UNHCR, and did not ask UNHCR to register the newcomers as refugees. To officially designate Syrians as refugees would limit Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war, when in fact the Turkish government has taken a decidedly anti-Assad stance. Indeed, Turkey has allowed arms and non-lethal aid through its territory to supply the Free Syrian Army (FSA). There is also some evidence that Turkey has allowed the FSA to maintain rear bases on Turkish soil.

Despite the insistence on calling Syrian newcomers ‘guests’ rather than ‘refugees’, many Turks resent the money and resources spent on the Syrians. There are also concerns that Syrians, desperate for income, take jobs at lower wages than Turks. Even guests can outstay their welcome, and with no end in sight to the civil war and no prospect of a return of Syrians to Syria, Turks are beginning to question how long they can sustain their assistance. It is significant, then, that in June 2013 AFAD began accepting offers of financial and other aid from outside agencies, including UNHCR and the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).


The schools developed in Syrian refugee camps in Turkey provide valuable models for establishing schools for rapidly growing refugee populations. They perform a vital service in the short term by providing at least rudimentary instruction for young students, keeping up Arabic academic skills and providing instruction in Turkish. But with no end in sight to the Syrian war, the number of new refugees will grow, and those already living in Turkey are unlikely to be returning to Syria in the near future. The next critical challenge for Syrian education in Turkey is what to do with the growing number of Syrian teenagers who need to finish their high-school studies at accredited schools in order to compete for places at universities in Turkey or elsewhere. Meeting this challenge is not just about providing space and teachers for these students. Turkish is the official language of instruction in Turkish schools and Turkish education authorities are very unlikely to grant accreditation to Syrian schools providing instruction in Arabic. One potential remedy, at least temporarily, is to allow international organisations such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to accredit Syrian schools on a provisional basis. Without some accommodation of the present generation of Syrian students, caught between not finishing their studies in Syria and not graduating from accredited Turkish schools, we will see the creation of a disenfranchised generation of young Syrians without degrees, who do not speak Turkish and who will be largely unemployable.

Selin Yildiz Nielsen recently served as a visiting Assistant Professor of Education at Zirve University in Gaziantep, Turkey. Mark A. Grey is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa.


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