Education Among Syrian Refugee Youth in Urban Settings in Turkey

In March, 2017, six years since the start of the Syrian civil war, the UNHCR announced that the number of Syrian refugees in neighboring countries had surpassed 5 million. Now in its seventh year, the war in Syria has cost more than 3.3 million Syrian school-aged children their education.

Prior to the war, nearly all of Syria’s children were enrolled in school; with a 99% school enrollment rate among primary school children, and an 82% enrollment rate among secondary school-aged children. Students like Mohammad and Yasemin, two university-aged students that are currently enrolled in Karam Foundation’s Karam Scholars program, were at the top of their class in Syria. “Before the war, I wanted to finish my studies. I completed my first year of university, but it became almost impossible to complete my second year.”

After being accepted to Turkish universities, Mohammad and Yasemin reflect on their struggles accessing education as refugees living in Turkey. “After moving to Turkey, I studied for the entrance exam to continue my studies. I was able to pass the exam and obtain the certificate needed to enroll. But still, the tuition costs were too high.” Yasmine, like many Syrian refugee youth was qualified to attend university in Turkey, but struggled financially.

Currently, Turkey hosts more than half of the Syrian refugee population. More than 3 million Syrians have fled to Turkey, a figure that includes both registered and unregistered refugees.  Of these, more than 700,000 are school-aged children. More than 90% of Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside of the camp setting, with limited access to basic services, including health, education, and food.<

For many refugees that are living outside of Turkey’s 25 government-run camps, healthcare and education services are nearly inaccessible due to language barriers and difficulty navigating the Turkish system. Whereas 90% of school-aged children living in the camps attend school regularly, less than 25% of Syrian refugee children living outside of the camps are attending school regularly. The majority of Syrian refugee school-aged children are urban refugees, meaning they  do not live in the camps, but rather in urban settings.

The gaps in Syrian education since 2011 have been recognized widely: in a study led by Human Rights Watch, on average, Syrian refugee school-aged children lost two years of schooling due to the war in Syria and subsequent displacement and resettlement in Turkey. According to a recent report led by UNICEF, more than 40% of Syrian refugee school-aged children living in Turkey are out of school. Many children are as old as the war in Syria and have never attended school. Many refugee families living in urban areas struggle to send their kids to school, for obvious reasons including language barriers, and difficulties navigating the Turkish school system. In addition, many families cannot afford to send their children to school, as they depend on them for financial support.

Under international law, Turkey is required to provide all children in the country with free primary education. The Turkish government has taken steps to meet its legal obligations by making education to Syrian refugee children more accessible. Syrian refugee children are able to enroll in the Turkish public school system so long as they are able to provide a government-issued ID and meet the Turkish language proficiency requirements. However, language acquisition in and of itself presents its own challenges, and for children who are unable to meet these standards, they are more likely to fall behind and experience gaps in their education. For many students like Mohammad, the enrollment process itself is most challenging. “In Turkey, for every application, I needed very specific identification forms that I did not have –this made things very difficult and limited my opportunities.”

Primary Education:

For children that are able to enroll in the Turkish public school system, it is difficult to stay encouraged and keep up with course work. The Turkish school system is not equipped to address the needs of Syrian refugee students. A main factor is that Turkish schools teach classes in Turkish. While temporary education centers are designed specifically to tackle issues such as language barriers, by hiring Arabic speaking teachers to educate an Arabic speaking class, they too are not equipped to teach Syrian refugee students. These temporary education centers are inaccessible to many, and many do not provide sufficient incentives for teachers, who in turn provide a low-quality education to the students. Many children become discouraged and drop out.

To address the issue of language barriers, the Turkish government has allowed Syrian-run schools, also known as temporary education centers, to receive accreditation from the Turkish government. This secures children access to a high school diploma recognized by Turkey and the Arab World.  There are currently 230 of these Syrian-run schools in Turkey, which are funded by private donors and NGOs. Tuition at these schools is approximately 1,070 TRY (300 USD) a year.

Still, despite the Syrian curriculum, these temporary education centers are not easily accessible. Many families in urban settings struggle to afford their basic living costs, and are therefore unable to afford the tuition costs as well as transportation costs to send their children to school. Many families depend on their children for added income to support the family. In addition, the temporary education centers are not equipped to meet the needs of a refugee population: the curriculum is outdated and the teachers, who are refugees themselves and also receive little (if any) compensation, are neither trained to be teachers, nor trained to address the needs of students who suffer from trauma.

While the Turkish government has made a concerted effort to address the low enrollment of Syrian refugee children in schools, achieving  a 50% increase in enrollment since last June, child labor among Syrian urban refugee children is still common, and education for Syrian children in Turkey still remains elusive. Syrian refugee parents still struggle to navigate the Turkish legal system. While new regulations allow registered Syrian refugees to apply for work permits, less than 1% of the 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees in Turkey obtain a work permit. That being said, for those that are unregistered, it is extremely difficult to register as a refugee and then obtain a work permit, which allows refugees to work only in the region or city where they applied for protection. To further complicate the matter, finding employers willing to sponsor them is almost impossible.

Secondary Education:

Having experienced gaps in their education, coupled with little access to school and Turkish language acquisition courses as well as poverty traps, it has become increasingly difficult for Syrian refugee teenagers to advance their education in Turkey. As a result, more than one million Syrian refugee children, between the ages of 6 and 17 years old work to support their families. The youth aged between 14 and 19 years old are among the most vulnerable.

Mohammad is one of the lucky ones. In Syria, he was at the top of his class, he graduated with a 93% and dreams of being a scientist. He left Syria when the war began, with the hope of further developing the skills he had honed there. In Turkey, he sought out scholarship opportunities to offset his living expenses, so that he could complete the application process to attend university. Others who left Syria to continue their education, struggled to do so, as the documentation that is needed to apply to universities is difficult to obtain due to high costs. “There are a lot of opportunities in Turkey –there are conferences, workshops, courses that I want to take to improve my skills.” For Mohammad and many other young Syrians in his situation, he struggled to access these opportunities, “I didn’t have the identification papers I needed to enroll.” Mohammad actively sought out scholarships and financial assistance in order to obtain the documents he needed to continue his education.

Though school enrollment among Syrian refugee school-aged children in Turkey has increased, the enrollment of children in Turkish public school system remains low due to language barriers. Furthermore, temporary education centers remain inaccessible due to financial barriers. Refugee parents continue to struggle to find jobs, and there are limited options to help stabilize families so that their children can attend school regularly in hopes of achieving a higher education and building a career.

While the Turkish government makes primary and secondary education available to Syrian refugee students, attending Turkish universities remains difficult for the majority of Syrian refugee teenagers. For students looking to enroll in university, Turkish language courses that prepare students for the TOMER Turkish language proficiency exam to enter Turkish universities are difficult to access, due to financial circumstances. Oftentimes these courses are also taught by Turkish instructors who lack Arabic language skills, therefore making the classes all the more challenging for Syrian refugee students.

Looking forward, we must think of solutions to mitigate the challenges Syrian refugee youth face as they look to advance their education. Some of these include:

  • More funding of Syrian-run schools
  • More job opportunities for Syrian refugee parents
  • Greater access to language acquisition courses

Case Study: Karam Foundation’s Innovative Education Programming

Programs such as Karam’s Sponsor a Syrian Refugee Family are designed specifically to offset challenges urban refugee families face in sending their children to school. The program provides a cash stipend to families that are struggling financially on the condition that their children attend school regularly. The program was created to combat child labor and early marriages among Syrian refugee children and youth. The program helps stabilize families as well, so that they can better adjust to their new life in Turkey, rather than board plastic boats in an attempt to reach European countries. In its pilot stage, Karam’s sponsorship program supported just over 20 families, helping send more than 40 kids in Reyhanli back to school. Now in its second year, the program has expanded to reach families in Istanbul as well. Today, Karam is sponsoring more than 40 families and helping more than 180 children access education.

In addition to Karam Foundation’s sponsorship program, programs such as Karam House, which opened earlier this year in Reyhanli, provide support to Syrian refugee teens in urban settings looking to supplement  their education. Karam House offers skill building courses in areas such as journalism, technology, coding, engineering, arts, and more.

The Karam House program, like Sponsor A Syrian Refugee Family program, is overseen by Syrian refugees that are staffed by Karam Foundation. In addition to receiving hands-on training, the youth receive one-on-one mentoring from Karam House mentors. These mentors offer the students and their families another form of support and guidance.<

For students looking to further advance their education, the Karam Scholars program supports high school and university level students with scholarship opportunities at accredited institutions in Turkey, Jordan, and the U.S.

Students like Mohammad and Yasemin who are currently attending Turkish universities are able to advance their education through the Karam Scholars program which provides eligible students with financial assistance to help offset the cost of university life, such as room and board, or books, or application fees. Mohammad and Yasemin believe that without these scholarships, it would be nearly impossible for them to continue their education, as  living expenses and the cost of books are far too high. Yasemine is currently attending university in Erzurum in Turkey, she is far from her family who live in Antakya. “I applied to many universities, but because I am a refugee, my options were limited. I wanted to stay close to my family, but I didn’t have a choice. I had to apply for scholarships so that I could afford my room and board.”

As Turkey is currently host to the largest population of Syrian refugees, it is critical that the government invest in better programming and policies that meet the needs of its growing refugee population, specifically those living in urban settings. In order to do this, Turkey should also be receiving outside support from other governments. The likelihood of Syrian refugees returning to Syria in the near future is unlikely, thus it is imperative that children and youth enroll in schools in order to obtain a more positive future. This, however, is only possible if families can afford to send their children to school.

Efforts such as Karam Foundation’s programs to advance Syrian refugee students’ education have been successful in combating challenges such as child labor, poverty, and early teen marriages that are common among urban refugee populations. Programs such as these help stabilize families, and present children and youth with greater opportunities and hope for a brighter future.

Above all, it is critical that larger NGOs meet the specific needs of the communities they provide assistance to. Assessing the strengths and weaknesses of a community should be a community-led effort. Karam Foundation’s education programs meet the specific needs of the communities they serve, always evolving from input from the staff and enrolled families and students.

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About Roya Naderi

Roya Naderi

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