When war came to Syria, Syrian-Canadian activist Hazar Mahayni went to the border town of Reyhanli, Turkey. Her mission: to teach the thousands of refugee children barred from attending class in Turkish schools. By the fall of 2012, Mahayni’s Al Salam school, the first of its kind in Reyhanli, opened its doors to more than 900 Syrian refugee children. Thousands more are on the waiting list.
Al Salam is located on a dusty street on the western edge of Reyhanli in an unremarkable compound. On a typical morning, the sounds of children echo for blocks all around. Buses arrive at 8:00 to deliver children for the first of three shifts.
At first Mahayni and her staff planned to register 200 to 300 students. By opening day, however, they accepted more than 900. And there are at least 1,500 on a waiting list. Even after fleeing the war, life for Syrian families in Turkey is hard. The men struggle to find work. As many as six families crowd into a single dwelling with a bitter winter looming.
Al Salam school gives Syrian children a chance to escape the stresses of their temporary homes, if even for just a few hours. The school’s official mission statement is to “work for these children, to give them an opportunity to believe in themselves, bring some normalcy back to their lives and become productive members of society.”
With only 14 classrooms, students are packed in tight. The curriculum covers all of the standard primary school subjects and also includes English and Turkish. A student parliament introduces the kids to the basic tenets of democracy. Mahayni says the parliament is meant to prepare her students for a new, post-war Syria.
The courtyard playground includes swings, a slide and miniature soccer goals. Play is important for the kids’ social development.
Naturally, soccer is the most popular activity. Mobs of children — boys, mostly — scramble across every inch of the outdoor area chasing a ball. The staff attempts, and largely fails, to enforce standard soccer rules.
Away from the cacophony of play, a girl sits by herself in an empty pool in the corner of the courtyard. Her name is Zarah and she likes to draw.
As a result of the war, many highly-trained Syrian teachers of all levels were left jobless. A secondary objective of Al Salam school is to develop and support a full-time professional staff. The school employs 40 people. Mahayni says that each staff member has her own family and is part of a community that can benefit from her salary. Mahayni has sent staff abroad for training.
Yaseen Ahmed Abdullah is an Al Salam teacher and grandfather of two students at the school. From 1982 to 1995, Abdullah was jailed by then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad for participating in the Hama uprising, which ultimately led to the massacre of tens of thousands of residents who opposed the regime. Many of Abdullah’s brothers were killed during the uprising. Under Hafez’s son and successor Bashar al-Assad, Abdullah saw his son taken into custody in 2006 for posting statements against the regime on his Facebook page. Neither Abdullah nor his daughter-in-law have heard anything about him since. In the summer of 2012, with war raging again in Hama, Abdullah fled with his remaining family to Reyhanli.
Just outside the gates of the school in a house surrounded by olive trees lives a young Syrian refugee family. Najeeb and Mariam have four children; three of them attend Al Salam. A dry cleaner in Aleppo before the war, Najeeb fled with his family a year and a half ago under heavy regime air attack. Now he’s unemployed.
Asked about the realities of being Syrian in Turkey, Najeeb grew pensive. He said Turkish employers and slum lords take advantage of Syrians. Low wages and “undignified” working conditions are common — and that’s when the work is available at all. More often than not, there is no work.
After considering whether to look for work cleaning houses, Mariam decided that looking after the family was more important. In staying home, she freed her eldest son Mustafa from having to look after his siblings. Instead he can focus on his education — already one year behind because of the war. Mariam said she would choose educating her children over feeding them. But she wept as she recalled a time when her eldest son asked if they could have some meat with dinner; they could not afford it.
Mariam does not hide her contempt for the world’s actions, and inactions, in Syria that she said have led to the deaths of thousands of Syrian children. She lamented the loneliness and isolation of Syrian refugees in Turkey. She said she worried about Western misunderstanding of religion in Syria. “Islam is peace!” she said.
For all their hardships, this family is one of the lucky ones. They have a home with modest facilities to themselves. And their children have the benefit of the school next door and the community that it brings. With war raging across the mountains, Najeeb and Mariam can bring their family together around the olive trees in their temporary Turkish home.
The school’s biggest challenge is money. Charitable fundraising is its sole revenue source. But Mahayni says that charity cannot sustain the school over the long term. The financial challenges are evident in the facilities. Space is limited. Staff have turned the kitchen into a classroom just to meet the exploding demand. Mahayni says she has considered setting up tents on the roof.
Turkish authorities have not accredited the school. Syrian refugees’ relations with Reyhanli’s Turks are strained, so school staff are wary of strangers around the facility. Still, Mahayni said the Turkish government has been helpful and that she can go to the mayor of Reyhanli for assistance.
“Many children have been killed in barbaric ways,” according to the school’s mission statement. “Many more have lost their parents and will never experience life as a complete family. Above all, they are denied the right to live an innocent and joyful childhood, part of which is an education.” Perhaps more important, Mahayni said, is the need to support coming generations of Syrians who hopefully will be able to return home to rebuild.
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