ANKARA: Saleh is a 13-year-old Syrian refugee boy who has lived in the capital city Ankara for the past six years.
“My favorite course is mathematics. When I first came to Turkey, I did not know Turkish and I could not communicate with anybody. My family had the cash transfer assistance from the EU and I began going to the school where I learned Turkish and began playing with my peers,” he told Arab News.
Saleh spends his evenings reading books in Turkish so he can develop his language skills and prepare for the high school that he is planning to attend in Turkey. He is currently reading “Les Miserables” by French writer Victor Hugo. Saleh is also dreaming of becoming an artificial intelligence engineer.
“Sometimes, I am subjected to peer bullying and social exclusion by people who do not know me at all,” Saleh said. “But my teacher warns such people and reminds them of the importance of cohesion. I also play chess at school, which helps me a lot in my social skills.”
He attends team activities and social projects that are organized by the UNICEF-supported Al-Farah Child and Family Support Center in Ankara. It is funded by the EU to provide services to refugee children and their families and help them meet their basic needs, including legal and social counseling along with psycho-social support.
Turkey’s efforts to integrate nearly 700,000 Syrian refugee children into the education system have also been hailed by Brussels. The head of the EU delegation to Turkey, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, said it was a “huge and unique success story” during his speech on Sept. 21 at a school opening ceremony in the southeastern Gaziantep province.
So far, the EU has provided financial assistance to nearly 400 schools across the country to support the training and employment of teachers as well as meet the operational costs.
Brussels earmarked nearly 3 billion euros ($3.34 billion) to Turkey under the Facility for Refugees program and about one-third of those funds are mainly allocated to the educational projects that promote the integration of Syrian kids into the Turkish education system. The funds also go toward the construction and equipping of some 100 schools in provinces with a high concentration of Syrian refugees as well as cash transfers to families whose children regularly attend school.
Of the nearly 4 million Syrians under temporary protection in Turkey, 1.2 million are of school age.
Experts underline the enrolment of Syrian refugee children as of key importance for the success of Turkey’s social cohesion and integration policies.
Schools provide war-affected children with the opportunity of socialization with the wider community, give a sense of belonging, and enhance Turkish language competency to overcome language barriers.
Basak Yavcan, a researcher on migration issues at the University of Liege and from TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Anakara, said refugees’ access to education has multiple benefits to both the refugee community and the hosting community.
“First, school enrollment is a great beginning for an effective economic, social, and political integration,” she told Arab News. “It provides a career pathway, keeps kids off the streets, and promotes inter-group contact.”
According to Yavcan, education plays a crucial role in creating a middle class of migrants which is an engine for social integration. It increases the quality of intergroup conflict and creates role models for the immigrant community.
“By teaching the common history, values, rights, and the meaning of citizenship in a country, education also promotes political integration,” she said. “Finally, by equipping individuals with the skills needed in the labor market, education makes economic integration easy.”
While access to education was initially a challenging area for Syrian refugees in Turkey, enrollment rates were low.
Yavcan said enrollment rates started to improve after the easing of registration policies, introducing regular degree equivalency exams, and conditional cash transfers in return for enrolled kids in a household. Local outreach programs to convince Syrian parents, training in the educational system for multicultural classroom environments, catch-up programs for Syrian students, and free transportation facilities also helped.
Last year, more than 600,000 Syrian children benefitted from the EU’s cash transfer program with the condition of continued enrollment.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected school enrolment last year while experts also underline some remaining challenges that derive from the cultural and economic dynamics of Syrian families living in Turkey.
“With high child labor rates and low inclusion of Syrians in the labor market, sending kids to school has a considerable cost — and opportunity cost in the case of child labor — to Syrian families,” Yavcan said. “Cultural challenges exist mainly for secondary education where girls need to attend school in co-ed classes, an area of resistance for some Syrian families.
“So more efforts are needed to improve the economic well-being of families, and to provide career pathways and opportunities for transition to jobs for Syrian pupils.”