Bus Rides Boost Enrolment of Syrian Children in Turkish Schools
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It is almost 11am at Tece Cumhuriyet Ilkokulu, a primary school in the Mezitli District of Mersin, Turkey’s largest port city on its southern Mediterranean coast. The school bell rings. Classroom doors open and a flurry of kids fill the halls. It’s recess, and I am sitting in the office of the school principal. A modest man with the stature of a true public servant, he has worked in public schools across Turkey for the past twenty years. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict seven years ago, he has seen first hand the challenges of accommodating rising numbers of Syrian children in Turkey’s public education system.
Tece Primary School currently has 250 students and 140 of them are Syrian — well over half.
An estimated one million Syrian children of school age are living in Turkey, and about 65 per cent of them enrolled in school. 350,000 are enrolled in regular government-run public schools and 340,000 are enrolled in Temporary Education Centres (TECs) established by the Ministry of National Education (MoNE) starting in 2014 in refugee camps and urban areas. Tece Primary School is one of hundreds of government-run schools around the country that have needed to find ways to serve the new population of Syrian students and rely on support from the international community, including the UN and NGOs.
IOM, the UN Migration Agency, with funding from the European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation (ECHO) and the United States Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), addresses a very crucial need — transportation. Syrian children in Turkey often have a hard time getting to school, for a number of reasons: their parents can’t afford to pay for transportation, schools are too far from their homes, or weather conditions make walking difficult.
Tece Primary School is just one of fourteen schools in Mersin Province that IOM’s School Transportation Programme is supporting, and among 36 nationwide across the four provinces of Adana, Mersin, Sakarya, and Yalova. So far this year, the programme (also implemented in Jordan and Lebanon) has helped almost 8,000 students in Turkey get to and from school with a fleet of 364 school buses.
As of October 2016, the MoNE launched a project funded by the European Union with the goal of fully integrating Syrian refugee and migrant children into the public education system and phasing out TECs across the country.
Since then, government-run schools such as Tece Primary School have seen an increase in the enrolment of Syrian students coming from TECs. The school hired more Syrian counsellors to help teachers and administrators communicate with students and their parents, many of whom have limited Turkish language skills. They also added two more after-school Turkish language classes every afternoon.
Murat Mahli, an IOM programme assistant, who plays an important role liaising between IOM and the schools in Mersin that participate in our programme, helps translate for me and the principal.
Murat himself embodies Syrian-Turkish integration. He grew up in Aleppo with his Turkish mother and Syrian father, and was constantly navigating both cultures. He empathizes with what the children are going through, as he understands what it means for them to maintain their Syrian identity while trying to fit into Turkish society.
A few more people enter the principal’s office and bring us hot Turkish çay — a strong black tea in small concave glasses, almost too hot to hold. Turkish people love their tea. It’s also a token of hospitality, and is shared generously no matter the weather. It’s very hot and dry in Mersin, over 32 degrees Celsius, and there are no air conditioning units in the school, or anything much more than the essentials. We leave his office and go outside to meet some of the students. Most of them are crowded towards the entrance of the building, very few are playing on the playground. There are a few on the sun-scorched concrete basketball court but it’s just too hot. A few girls are playing jump-rope on the side of the building by the shade, as other kids sit around talking and giggling.
One of the school’s Vice Principals, a Mersin native and young woman who spent many years teaching English in Istanbul, introduces me to 14-year-old student. She is one of the older girls and describes her as among the school’s brightest with a high level of English.
She explains that the girl has just recently arrived from Aleppo following the death of a parent. She is eager to go to high school but, because of her limited knowledge of Turkish, needs to catch up. She’s very motivated and a fast learner.
It is clear that she is serious about her studies, and as the eldest of several children in her family, she has to be. She has a heaviness of expression that reflects someone twenty years older, someone who experienced tragic loss and distress, and is now looking for a way out of it through a new country and an education.
Another student, an outgoing and confident ten-year-old girl, approaches me and Murat, eager to make conversation. She declares that she gets along well with her Turkish classmates and that they are really nice. She says now that she knows the language, she and her classmates can understand each other and communicate better. Her teacher is looking on with a smile.
This class is made up of twenty students — six Turkish and 14 Syrian — of varying ages and learning levels. Their teacher has taught at Tece Primary School for 39 years. More recently it has been challenging for her to balance the different levels of the students, not to mention the large gap in Turkish language proficiency of the Syrian students. She relies on Syrian counsellors and Turkish language teachers for help, some of whom had previously worked at TECs.
As the school day comes to a close, the students and principals gather outside waiting for IOM’s school buses to arrive to take the kids home. The school relies heavily on these buses to bring the 140 Syrian students to school every day — half of the school’s entire student body. Without the buses, education for these children might not be possible. As the buses pull up, Murat and the principals help the kids board.
I say goodbye to the two girls I met. We smile and wave to each other as the bus pulls away, and I cannot help but wonder what the future holds in store for them.
By Lanna Walsh, Public Information Officer at IOM Turkey.