Society will be rewarded if Syrian refugees are treated well
A nine-year-old Syrian boy, who had fled his war-torn country with his family, reportedly hanged himself in a cemetery in Turkey’s northwestern province of Kocaeli last week. His father stated that his son, Wael Al-Saud, was subjected to racism at his own school. The boy’s name, Wael, means “saved” or someone who is “harbored” in Arabic. The Ministry of Education in Kocaeli denied he was bullied by either students or teachers and began an investigation. We do not know why he committed suicide at that age, and maybe we will never be able to learn the reason. However, we should learn to live with Syrians who have fled to our country as soon as possible — not only Turks, but all the nations that are hosting refugees worldwide.
In March, a nine-year-old Syrian girl, Amal Alshteiwi whose first name means “hope” in Arabic, committed suicide because of bullying at her school in Canada. When it comes to racism and xenophobia, it does not matter whether it is Turkey or Canada, a cradle of so-called democracy. Anti-immigrant, discriminatory discourse first became popular among the politicians who fueled this racism in public. Then racism became visible everywhere — in public, in private and in all corners of the world. It has been spread by the media, states and institutions, resulting in the marginalization of refugees. That racist rhetoric has now reached school classrooms, where children discriminate against their classmates on a daily basis, whether in Turkey, Canada or anywhere in Europe.
While writing this column, Turkey kicked off its much-awaited operation against Daesh and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) terror groups in northern Syria. The military action, dubbed “Operation Peace Spring,” aims to eliminate the terrorist threat to Turkey and ensure Syrian refugees return to their country with a safe zone in the area, according to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
It seems like Erdogan wants to decrease tensions at home by emphasizing Turkey’s need for a safe zone to re-settle a large portion of these refugees. It is still too early to predict the implications of this operation but, even if some Syrians do settle in the safe zone, there will still be great numbers living in Turkey.
The integration policies pursued by the government have not yet had a significant impact on the public perception of Syrians.
According to data provided by the Interior Ministry’s migration office, 3.6 million Syrians currently live in Turkey. Of this number, 1.7 million are aged 18 or under. The data shows that about 655,000 out of just over a million school-aged Syrian children are currently receiving education in establishments across Turkey. Attending Turkish public schools or temporary education centers (TECs) are the two main options available for school-age Syrians. The Turkish government, however, has taken a decision to gradually close all TECs and eventually transfer all Syrian students to public schools to help their integration.
TECs teach an accredited curriculum in Arabic so, in order to integrate Syrian children to the Turkish education system and remove issues related to language, Turkish-language lecturers are employed as part of the “Promoting Integration of Syrian Children to Turkish Education System” project. However, it seems the integration policies pursued by the government have not yet had a significant impact on the public perception of Syrians. Needless to say, integration is not easy for either side but, as a well-known phrase says, “geography is destiny.” Thus, by hook or by crook, we have to learn to live with Syrians in this geography.
Overall social cohesion requires both bottom-up and top-down approaches. In the case of the bottom-up approach, one should first learn to live with refugees in schools. Children are a reflection of their parents and their environment: What they hear at home is reflected in their actions. So responsibility falls on the shoulders of parents, who should encourage their children to support those who have fled from war. In the case of the top-down approach, those politicians, academics and celebrities who fuel the racist fire in the country at every opportunity should be held responsible for every single word that may cause such incidents as mentioned above.
Many Syrian children who are going to Turkish schools today were born in Turkey and have not seen any other country. The same applies to Canada and all other countries that are hosting Syrians and other refugees. Whether or not these Syrian children end up as something of a crime wave after a decade or so depends on how one treats them today. As the Turkish proverb says: “You reap what you sow.”
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz