In southern Turkey, Syrian refugee children are caught between a harrowing past and an uncertain future
By Patrick Wells
HATAY, Turkey, 10 May 2012 – In a quiet house outside Antakya in southern Turkey, parents fleeing 14 months of violence in Syria have set up a makeshift school for their children. The sounds of lessons in maths, English, Turkish and the Koran ring through the living rooms and bedrooms, and the garden has become a lively playground.
VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Patrick Wells reports on a school for Syrian refugee children in southern Turkey.
For many children here, it’s the beginning a new normality as the carnage grinds on in their homeland. Still, the pictures hanging on the walls of the art classroom are a reminder of the toll the conflict has taken.
One picture, drawn in crayon, shows tanks and soldiers firing at houses and a man lying dead in a pool of blood on the pavement. Another shows a father, mother and child dressed for burial, their wounds carefully marked in red ink.
Bearing the weight of the past
In the headmaster’s office sat Sayed*, a 16-year-old student who fled Syria three weeks ago. He had gone to a protest with his class in Syria. As the crowd grew, their chants were met with bullets.
“One of my friends was shot in the chest. I was asking him, ’what’s wrong with you?’ but he couldn’t speak.”
Two of Sayed’s childhood friends were seriously wounded. He took them to a government hospital, but they were refused treatment. Eventually, their parents got them into one of the many secret clinics operating across Syria, but that was the last time Sayed saw them. Within a few days, both had died.
The children in Turkey bear not only the weight of the past, but also an anxiety about what might happen to friends and family who are still in Syria. Sayed’s uncle recently disappeared.
When asked how he felt about everything that has happened, Sayed wept.
Assistance urgently needed
The headmaster, Mustafa Shakir, said that that many of the school’s 196 children were struggling to come to terms with the violence and loss, and that more assistance was urgently needed to help them reclaim their future.
“There are a lot of difficulties, but the worst is the psychological state the children are in, especially when they have seen blood and dead bodies and fighting. They can’t concentrate.”
Money for books, materials and even the school bus comes from private donations from Syrians abroad, but more support is needed.
“Every day a lot of reporters and media are here,” he said, “but nothing happens.”
Refugee camps on the border
The Turkish government has built a chain of semi-permanent camps along the border for those fleeing Syria without the means to support themselves. These now house over 5,000 children.
The Turkish government is also providing education in Arabic for children in the camps, but parents say there is a need for sequestered classes for students over 13 and to help those whose university education has been interrupted.
With no end to the conflict in Syria in sight, Syria’s young refugees remain in limbo. Their future in Turkey remains unclear, and no one knows when, or even if, they will be able to return home.
*Names changed to protect identities