As war in Syria continues, refugees in Turkey open a high school

February 14, 2013

At a new school for teenage Syrian refugees, in a still-under-construction apartment building near a Turkish hospital, psychology has been added to the standard Syrian curriculum. Turkish is now required, too. But the course about the legacy of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been dropped.

When this middle and high school opened late last year, many of its students had not attended classes in more than a year, as their families hid within Syria or fled to Turkey, where schools that teach in Arabic are scarce. They were behind in their studies and starved for friendship and the normalities of teenage life that the war had taken away.

“Very few knew each other, and they all missed their friends at home,” Amar, 24, who used to be a teacher in Latakia in northwest Syria and is now an administrator at the school. Like many of the staff members, she requested to only be identified by her first name, because she considers her work at the school a challenge to the Syrian regime that could make her family a target of retaliation. “Now they are friends. They are making new memories together.”

In the past year and a half, Syrian refugees living in Turkey have opened their own primary schools, but they delayed setting up schools for older students, for whom a break from studies can be less disruptive. But with the uprising in Syria nearing its second anniversary, the people behind this effort decided they could wait no longer.

“We want them to go back to Syria stronger than they left so they can rebuild it,” said Sorraj, the school’s 39-year-old vice principal who is also from Latakia. “We want them to learn that they can do anything, so when they go back, they will not wait for others to start rebuilding.”


Soaring refugees

Nearly immediately, 600 students enrolled. Dozens more are now on a waiting list. Once construction of the top floor of the building is completed, school officials hope to accept 100 more students. Refugee teens living elsewhere in southern Turkey have asked if they can commute hours to the school or start up a dorm.

The teens are often old enough to join the fighting back home or get a job to support their families. But some Syrian educators worry that if they don’t resume their studies, these teens will never finish high school and put their college plans on hold indefinitely.

The staff of about a dozen teachers works in two shifts, teaching girls in the morning and boys in the afternoon. School officials said they plan to give students a transcript that they hope will someday be honored by a new government and Syrian colleges.

Leaders of the school say they had to get special permission from the local government to operate, because their students do not speak Turkish well enough to attend local schools and do not live in an official refugee tent camp, which often have high schools. The school is free to students and funded with donations from Syrian expatriates.

‘I didn’t want to leave’

On a recent morning, more than three dozen girls, nearly all covering their heads with scarves, packed onto benches lining one room to learn Turkish. Down the hall, just as many solved math problems in donated notebooks. Upstairs, about two dozen girls passed around a single English book, covered with notes and scribbles from an earlier user.

Many of the families have been transient for months. The student body includes three Iraqi students who were refugees in Syria, only to have to move again. And some parents said they were hesitant to leave Syria because they didn’t want to pull their children out of school. A 13-year-old boy named Hasan said that he attended a school for gifted students in Idlib. His family stayed in Syria until they heard that a school had opened in Antakya, he said, then fled in early January.

On his last day of school in Syria, he couldn’t tell anyone that he was leaving for fear his family would be stopped by government forces. Once safely in Turkey, he told them via Facebook. A few responded, saying that he had missed so many classes in Syria that he would probably be expelled.

Timeline: Major events in Syria’s tumultuous uprising that began in March 2011.

“I didn’t want to leave my school,” said the boy, who has curly brown hair and wears glasses and one day wants to be a heart surgeon. “I didn’t want to leave my friends.”

Difficulty opening up

The teachers say they have tried to create an environment where it’s all right to talk about feelings and cry in the principal’s office. They have hosted food and clothing collections for newly arriving refugees. And the older students recently organized an evening celebration where they performed a skit, sang songs in different languages and displayed artwork inspired by the war.

“Some of the kids, what they saw made them stronger. And some of them . . . ” the vice principal said. “We have a 13-year-old boy who was arrested with his brother, and he saw his brother killed. When he sits in class, he doesn’t listen. He just sits there.”

Even in peace time, teens often have difficulty opening up, said the school psychologist. In the face of death and destruction, some teens feel guilty complaining that they miss their friends or their old way of life. At an age when they sometimes clash with their parents, families are forced to live together in close quarters. The teachers have been trying to show the students, especially the boys, that it’s okay to release their feelings in the same ways that younger children do: painting, drawing, playing sports, talking to adults, crying.

“Teenagers want to be independent. They want to prove themselves,” said Muatasim, 26, who was working on his masters in psychology at the University of Damascus before the uprising. “When they come to a problem, they want to solve it themselves. We tell them, it’s okay to ask for help.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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