Syrian Refugees Launch School in Turkey

Antakya, Turkey — 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.”

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.

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.