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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Fleeing Violence, Falling Behind: How to educate the 400,000 Syrian refugee children in Turkey

Dr. Xanthe Ackerman, Executive Director of the Fuller Project for International Reporting
Washington, DC
December 10, 2015

2:30 P.M. EST


MS ROBINSON: So good afternoon everyone. I wanted to welcome you to the Washington Foreign Press Center today. Today’s briefing is on bridging the educational gap for Syrian refugee children. And we’re very pleased to have with us today executive director of the Fuller Project for International Reporting, Dr. Xanthe Ackerman. She will start with some opening comments, and then we will open it up for questions. So without further ado.

MS ACKERMAN: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me here, Doris. And nice to see all of you. Happy to be talking about this topic, one that I think we have cause for some optimism, as I think there’s a good moment for groups that are interested in helping with Syrian education, especially in Turkey, which is an area where I’ve focused.

By way of brief introduction, I am the director of the Fuller Project for International Reporting, which is a media organization that focuses on addressing the gender gap in reporting through multimedia journalism that focuses on women and on education.

As far as thinking about education for Syrian refugees in Turkey, the reason why I say there’s cause for some optimism is that we’ve moved through some different phases of the crisis and now some pieces have come together. In the first phase of the crisis, the war started, we didn’t realize how long the war was going to go, and Turkey opened up its borders; refugees started coming across the border. Turkey started building camps. They were said to be some of the best in the world, and many of the refugees came into those camps and children were getting educated in those camps, the majority of the kids.

In a second phase of the crisis, in other neighboring countries to Syria the borders began to close and there were more restrictions on Syrians. And so many more Syrians started to flood into Turkey; the rate of the refugees coming in accelerated. And in response, Turkey built many more camps. By 2014, they had built almost all of the 25 camps that they have now, and those camps hit capacity, reaching up to just over 250,000 people in the camps. But at the same time, Syrians flooded throughout the country on a much larger scale than could be met by this type of response. And so Turkey began to put in place a legislative framework and passed temporary protection measures for Syrians so that they would have a right to education. So that was a really important milestone that was passed in 2014.

And then in a third phase, as ISIS was attacking Kobani and huge numbers of Syrians were crossing the borders into Suruc in eastern Turkey and the numbers really skyrocketed so that now, as we are, we see estimates that are as many as 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey, the government has started to really put in place a long-term plan for how to address the needs of the Syrian children.

So having moved through these three phases, now in addition to there being the will to welcome Syrians and a legislative framework that gives them rights, there’s also a planning framework. So I’ll tell you about the entry points for how organizations can think about working with these children who are in Turkey and how the Turkish Government is thinking about working with them.

The numbers can vary a bit, but most recently the numbers that we’ve seen are that there are 650,000 Syrian children of school age in Turkey; 250,000 of them in school, so about two-thirds of them out of school, a huge number. Turkey has made a really bold commitment to increase the number of children who are in school up to about 400,000 by the end of the school year, which is going to take a huge amount of work and partnership.

Their plan consists mainly of two different entry points through the formal education system. The first is in their Turkish schools. So going back to that legislative piece around the right to education, Syrians have the right to go into Turkish schools, and 40,000 of them have done that. So they can enroll with just their temporary IDs.

The problems that they have are the ones that you would expect: the language barrier. There isn’t a lot of language training available, although that’s something that’s been recognized and the government is working on. They face bullying, as you can imagine if the children can’t keep up, and that can be a difficult environment for them. The teachers don’t have the type of training that they would need to be successful in a multilingual classroom, especially when there are children who are coming from the kinds of situations that children coming from war have experienced.

But this is a really critical entry point, and education experts would stress moving into the formal education system as the most important long-term goal, because refugees on average are out of their country for 17 years. So as much as Syrians will often say that they want to go home and they expect to go home, global norms would say that many of these children are going to be in Turkey for the majority of their education. So moving into the formal education system as much as possible is really important.

The second way that the government is working to serve their needs are through what’s called temporary education centers. So these are often run in the second shift of a public school, from 1:30 to 5:30 in the afternoon. And the government will run them with Syrian partners – a Syrian head of school, for example – with Syrian volunteer teachers who will receive stipends. It’ll be run in Arabic with all Syrian students, and they have a curriculum that has been developed by the Syrian interim government, and then exams are administered jointly with the Turkish Government and with the Syrian interim government. And that curriculum is slightly modified from what was in Syria.

So this is also really important, and there’s over a hundred of these in the country, and there’s a lot of NGOs that are coming in to support these, to give the stipends to the teachers and to give them materials. And these are places where innovation can come in, where tablets can be provided, or lots of different things can happen just at municipal level.

Then a third and really important thing that’s happening is that the Syrians and the Turks who are on the ground and who see the need around them all the time are coming up with lots of different approaches to address the really difficult issues that these formal approaches can’t always get to. Child labor is a huge issue. There aren’t any really good estimates for how many children are working, but there’s lots of anecdotal evidence. And the children who are working are often breadwinners for their families, so it’s very difficult, even if you provide the educational opportunity, to cancel the need for that income for the families.

So there are grassroots efforts to help families find jobs, to provide some kind of play for those children, to strengthen the family unit, that sort of thing. And these are really promising and really important, and it’s really interesting to see, because in Syria the civil society wasn’t very strong. It was really driven by government. And so it’s a new and important development and with some nurturing can grow even stronger. And also in Turkey, civil society is developing as a result of this crisis. So in some ways, that’s an important and potentially beneficial outcome of this. Some of these NGOs were active 10 years ago or 15 years ago and have now become activated again as a result of this crisis, but they have a huge amount of difficult accessing funding.

So those are the main entry points. Turkey has also been extremely generous with scholarships to university, noting that these are the Syrians who are going to be called on to rebuild the country and also create ties between Turkey and Syria and the Middle East, and so there have been thousands of scholarships at that level as well.

So I’ll stop there and take any questions that you might have.

MS ROBINSON: Great. And just a reminder to state your name and your media organization before you ask your question.

QUESTION: Well, actually, my name is (inaudible) and I’m with the Voice of America Turkish Service. I was hoping that we can have you for a short interview, so I’m going to keep my questions for later.


QUESTION: Rahim Rashidi with Kurdistan TV, same.


QUESTION: I also scheduled an interview with you, but I think we can have an open discussion.

MS ACKERMAN: Sure, sure.

QUESTION: Yeah. So your focus is on the Syrian childrens in Turkey. Do you think Turkey is very different from other countries accepting children refugees and regarding education for the children?

MS ACKERMAN: Yeah, I do think there are some significant structural differences. Turkey – well, if you compare it to Lebanon, for example, Turkey is in a better position economically. And so they have – the infrastructure has been able to absorb the refugees in a way that’s more advantageous to the refugees. So although the children are not in school – there’s still a huge number of children out of school in Turkey on parallel to Lebanon – the families have been able to find small apartments to rent, and so they’re not in settlements outside, exposed to the elements in the same way that they are in Lebanon.

It’s also going to be much easier now for Turkey, now that all of these pieces are in place, for them to move forward quickly, because people are – they are in urban centers, they are in apartments. When the school is provided, many more people are going to able to be collected. So in Lebanon, people are settled all over in different areas. It’s going to be much more difficult to put together an organized response. In Lebanon, they have put a lot of emphasis on double-shifting, especially for primary school students. They have different barriers as far as language. Obviously, Arabic is a common language, but at the same time, they have French and English as the children get into higher levels. So it’s easier in some ways for the younger children, but the language barriers do come in as well.

Jordan, I think the integration in the camps is much more important. The role of the camps is more important in Jordan. It – whereas in Turkey, the camps are really just serving as small – a small fraction of the population at this point. The camp population is under 300,000, whereas the total population of the country is over 2 million.

So big differences as far as how people are living and how they can be accessed with services and how all of that can be organized. Yeah.

QUESTION: What about in, like, European countries or in the U.S.? I bet the culture shock is, like, enormous for them.


QUESTION: And I don’t know, how do they deal with the education for the children here in the U.S.?

MS ACKERMAN: Sure. I haven’t spoken with families that have come to the U.S. I think the Syrian – I have spoken with Syrian families who are preparing to move to Europe, and they were very, very hopeful about getting their children into a school system that they saw as giving the children options, giving the children a chance to get a diploma that would be recognized, feeling that they would have a hopeful future for their children.

I think some of the steps that are going to be put in place in Turkey are going to be helpful in leveling some that. But I think at the same time, the culture shock, of course, is going to be a very real element. If a child moves to Sweden and needs to learn a completely new language, depending on the age of the child, of course, it’s going to be a very difficult – a new experience.

QUESTION: Can I ask some questions? My name is Tatsuya Mizumoto from Jiji Press, which is Japanese wire service. I want to make sure some statistics facts. So how many Syrian children in now in Turkey, frankly? Yeah.

MS ACKERMAN: Yeah, if you want to – if you want to look for statistics online, you can look at UNHCR for an online reference. That’s probably the best place to get a source online. There are different numbers, but UNHCR reports that there’s about 2.1 million registered refugees in Turkey at the moment.

QUESTION: That is total number of the Syrian refugees.

MS ACKERMAN: Right, the total number. And children – I think it’s about 75 percent of that. But they’ll give you the exact number.

QUESTION: Seventy-five percent of 2.1 million?


QUESTION: So you said in your remarks the number is 650,000.

MS ACKERMAN: -- 650 – for school age.

QUESTION: School age.

MS ACKERMAN: School age.

QUESTION: In Turkey.


QUESTION: And then is that 40,000 children now in Turkish public school, right?


MS ACKERMAN: Out –. So the numbers that I was quoting are from the senior official Dr. Ozturk who advises the government on these matters, and he gave those numbers in a VOA interview just very recently. Sometimes there are different numbers, but those are the most recent numbers that I’ve seen. The numbers that he gave were that there are 650,000 children of school age --

MS ACKERMAN: -- in Turkey. And that usually refers to age 5 through 17. And that there were 250,000 who were in school.

QUESTION: 250, 250,000 are in school, out of – in school.

MS ACKERMAN: In school. In school.

QUESTION: In Turkey’s --


QUESTION: Okay. So between 400,000 kids --

MS ACKERMAN: 400, exactly.

QUESTION: -- are out of school.

MS ACKERMAN: Out of school.

QUESTION: And then also you pointed out number three, the parents providing. I mean --

QUESTION: Actually, is there any opportunity for Syrian parents can get a job in --



MS ACKERMAN: Yeah, that’s a really crucial issue. And it’s one that people have raised and there’s some discussion now about getting more facility for work permits for the parents. At the moment, Syrian parents have a lot of difficulty getting work permits, so there’s less than 5,000 Syrian adults that have work permits in Turkey. So there’s a huge number of Syrians who work unregistered making very, very little money in exploitative conditions.

QUESTION: So what is the main obstacle for them?

QUESTION: Is that the language? I think as you said, I guess the Syrian people cannot speak Turkish. Maybe Arabic.

MS ACKERMAN: Right. I think one – one challenge is that the work – one challenge and one thing that happens is that the work won’t be given to a male head of household because the work is seen to be too low, and so an employer won’t give it to a man, so it then goes to a child. So male heads of household have difficulty finding work, because there isn’t any work that’s suitable for a man. So the employer would rather give it to a child. So that’s why children end up working. And Syrian women – the majority didn’t work, and many Syrian women would prefer to be at home taking care of their children and many don’t feel comfortable moving around and working. And so a lot of times children are working as main breadwinners.

A lot of Turks don’t feel that Syrians necessarily should be taking jobs away from Turks. I think there’s about a 50-50 divide as far as public opinion on that issue, so that is one obstacle. Although the Turkish economy is growing, of course there’s still unemployment and there are Turkish citizens who also need jobs, so there’s a political obstacle there. But I think there are opportunities for job creation schemes. Turkey has a great manufacturing sector. There are other experiences in other countries that could be brought, that could create opportunities both for Turkish citizens and also for Syrian citizens at the same time so that some of those political obstacles could be addressed.

QUESTION: Can you see any social confliction between Turkish and Syrians? They are same Muslim, but their culture or their history or their language are different, so is there any discrimination or --

MS ACKERMAN: Right. Yeah, there have been instances and there have been outbreaks. There was – there were a series of protests around this time last year, anti-Syrian protests in the South. But given the scale of Syrians in Turkey, I would have to say it’s quite low and it’s quite remarkable how much warmth there is. I mean, the country has accepted a huge number of refugees, and of course they are refugees for the most part without income or without high income, and so it is an economic strain. But for the most part, people are welcoming.

There are opinion polls that show – there’s mixed feelings, but I’ve seen some incredible stories of generosity, including in one city called Kilis, which is down in the southern area, where they had a population of 90,000 and then they had over 100,000 Syrians come. And they continue to welcome them, and I went to one of their town celebrations, where everyone was together, breaking bread together. And that’s the policy of the municipality, is to welcome and to continue to welcome. And so I think overwhelmingly people are welcoming and doing everything they can, and of course it’s a strain and a stressful situation.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm. So if you can – if you are wanting to focus on children issues, what international society can do quickly?

MS ACKERMAN: Mm-hmm. Well, money needs to be channeled into these different areas. So money immediately can be channeled into setting up school blocks which can be used as temporary education centers. As soon as those schools are set up, as soon as there’s a school head, the children will come to the school. So if they can be set up, if buses can be provided – that is a question of funding. As soon as that money is made available, those things can be operationalized and the children will come.

Other programs that can support that and get at some of the more difficult challenges, like community centers, are hugely important. I think sometimes people are looking for a silver bullet that will solve everything, but the clusters of different solutions are also important. The community center that can take people in and address the family problem and say that the father’s not working but he wants to, they’re having difficulty with the children, and they don’t have an apartment, and then solve all of those problems together can strengthen the family, help the children, get the children in school. So those community centers are really important.

Support for women – women heads of household – there are so many who have come alone, who may be facing domestic violence, who are having a hard time supporting their children – so more programs to support women so they can support themselves and support their families as well – all of those things.

And there are so many actors that want to help. They need to move in and they need to help, and there is room for partnership. The Turkish Government now has modality to work with international NGOs. There’s a EU trust fund that’s made money available. So financing, I think, is a big – putting the financing there and then partners moving in.

MS ROBINSON: Great. Did anyone else have a question before we break for one-on-one interviews?

So – well, with that, we will end this discussion, and we want to thank you for taking the time to join us.

MS ACKERMAN: Thank you so much.

MS ACKERMAN: Thank you all.

MS ROBINSON: Thank you.

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