The Syrian conflict has devastated the entire country since 2011. In April 2019, the number of refugees from Syria seeking refuge in another country was more than five and a half million. More than three million of them were in Turkey that year. This article is about refugee children from Syria who have entered Turkish schools. It is based on qualitative research I conducted in February and March 2019 in Turkey. I visited two institutions where Syrian children studied. The first of them was the Temporary Education Center in Karaman. The second was the state high school in Istanbul.
In the 2016/2017 school year, for the first time in Turkey, more Syrian children were enrolled than unenrolled. According to the Turkish Ministry of National Education, of the 870,000 Syrian children of school age, 380,000 were out of school. With the support of the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF), the Temporary Education Center (TEC) (Geçici Eğitim Merkezi) became the first stop on the way to integrate Syrian students into the Turkish education system.
This temporary project was only aimed at children from Syria. The Turkish government has gradually closed all temporary education centers until 2019. During 2019, six- and seven-year-old children were already enrolled in Turkish primary schools in the first and second grades, respectively. The TEC in Karamana, Sakarya province provided education to children in grades three, four, seven and eight.
The city of Karaman is located in the province of Sakarya, the capital of which is Adapazari. It is approximately 13 km from Karaman. However, some pupils came to this school from places as far as 70 km away, while the journey took more than an hour. However, thanks to school buses, children and their parents do not have to deal with transfers and other problems associated with commuting. School starts in the morning at 09:30 and ends at 14:45. After the end of classes, buses were waiting in front of the school, which took not only the children, but also their teachers home. The TEC building was built specifically for this purpose. It was practically new and the classrooms looked clean and modern, although they lacked technology such as interactive whiteboards. However, every object in the classroom, be it a window or an electrical plug, had a Turkish punch-out, which helps the students remember the words. Children from Syria receive material support in the form of stationery or exercise books given to them by the school.
Pupils who were in the TEC in the fourth grade go to the state school after it ends. The fifth grade was omitted so that the children could start each grade from the beginning already at the Turkish school, i.e. at their high school. (According to Turkish education system 4+4+4). There was no sixth grade at this school due to capacity reasons. This system also prevents problems with the unbalanced age of pupils, when children who should already belong to higher classes do not enter the first classes within the TEC. The classes were divided according to the level of the Turkish language. For example, the fourth grade was divided into four levels. Fourth A was a class where students speak and write Turkish very well. The fourth D was a class where the understanding of Turkish is weaker.
To better understand this distribution of language abilities, Turkish language teacher Kerim (25, male) said: "Those students in the 'D' classes are mostly children who have arrived in Turkey only recently. Children usually learn the Turkish language by the age of two or three". The children I spoke with also confirmed that learning Turkish was quite easy for them.
There were six lessons on the schedule each day and each lesson lasted 40 minutes. In one week, a total of 30 hours of education were provided for one class, of which 15 hours were in Turkish and 15 hours of other subjects in Arabic. All subjects were taught to the children in their native language. In this Arabic block, there was also room for one English lesson. This school also had teachers from Syria who taught subjects only in Arabic. All temporary education centers used the Syrian curriculum.
At TEC, eight out of ten children I interviewed in 2019 had lived in Turkey for more than four years. They started school when they were seven years old and were in this school for the third year. Among the boys, the most popular subjects were science and mathematics. Arabic or English language was less popular. Among the girls, it was Arabic because they wanted to teach this language in the future.
When talking to teachers who knew the students' parents, I found out that one of the biggest problems that Syrian families face is the language barrier, which practically makes it impossible for them to access the labor market, and therefore most of them are unemployed. Furthermore, there is the problem of communication with the authorities and lengthy bureaucracy: "More than once it happened to me that the parents of the children complained to me about the bureaucracy, because of which they did not receive financial support from the Red Crescent for seven months after moving." (Leila, English teacher) This also affects the children, since for financial reasons, instead of education, they have to work for a living even at such a young age.