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Story Publication logo September 22, 2014

School for Traumatized Syrian Children to Close


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Boston University student fellow Selin Thomas documents people on the margins as she tells stories...


ANTAKYA, Turkey—The excited screams of children bounce off the slides, the thuds of their shoes on the rubber tarmac vibrate as they jump from plastic slides to swing sets. Timid, veiled girls skip and giggle arm-in-arm as restless boys race around them until finally the call to attention bell rings.

Though this schoolyard sounds and looks like any other, the realities of these children are far from the carefree, naive innocence their age would suggest. Their clothes are dirty, torn; their single notebook is worn and already half-full. The majority of them haven't been to school in two or more years.

They have fled from country to country, tent to tent, apartment to derelict apartment until, finally, their relatives were able to find some semblance of normalcy here in the border town of Antakya, where an estimated 170,000 Syrians have sought refuge from the violent civil war ceaselessly waging on in their homeland. According to the Turkish Red Cross, there are a total of 220,000 refugees in the Hatay region, in addition to 600,000 registered in numerous camps along the border.

"Our martyr is gone, he has gone to paradise. Bashar has killed my people, the son of the slaughter," the children sing of Syria's leader. "May Allah give us patience. May Allah save you Assad, but He is not on your side."

Cheering to the songs of the revolution, some children grab each other's shoulders while others lift their hands to the air, forming peace and victory signs with their fingers as they walk in an orderly march to their classrooms for the first lesson of the day.

Situated between Antakya's bustling center and its mountainous villages, Dunya Sehit Cocuklari Egitim ve Kultur Merkezi, or World's Orphaned Children Education and Cultural Center, is the only school in the area built by private Turkish donors. It boasts a modest playground, a vibrant cultural gazebo, Turkish, English, Arabic, math lessons, a prayer room and eight 20-student classrooms.

"What we have built here is opportunity--for these children, for their country and for our country," co-founder Hayrettin Deniz said. Turkish citizens must do more, Deniz said, to salvage the fate of refugees pouring over the border and showing no signs of slowing.

The student body of nearly 200, made up solely of Syrian orphans, is on summer break and Deniz is leasing it at no charge to the staff and students of The Generations Center, an 80-student educational camp for psychologically traumatized 6- to 12-year-olds.

The Generations Center represents a mere sample of the millions of displaced Syrian children desperate to get an education in the wake of their country's bloody conflict. Of 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees, more than 800,000 of whom are in Turkey, more than half are children, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Arabic-speaking schools have sprouted up in camps, and local townships along the border, but thousands of children have still been without school for more than two years.

Abdul Hameed, 53, once a primary school teacher in Hama, solemnly noted the inadequate educational options available to kids in his adopted Turkish village, approximately 48 kilometers south of Antakya. "This generation of children is lost," he said. "They have nothing without education, and no one to give it to them."

Due to the difficulties of witnessing the atrocities of war, students of The Generations Center suffer from mild to incapacitating psychological trauma. For more than half of them, this burden is coupled with learning disabilities or mental instability that requires highly individualized, specialized care, much of which they won't receive. Though refugee schools have flourished in parts of Turkey since the outbreak of the Syrian war, especially in the southernmost areas of Hatay, they are barely equipped for the volume of students in need of them.

Three boys

Omar is a playful and mischievous age 8. His steely, almond-shaped-and-colored eyes scan his surroundings almost constantly. The tattered, dirty white gauze haphazardly slung around his neck holds the peeling cast around his right arm sort-of-in place.

Once an active, healthy boy in Syria, Omar is now performing in school with the mental abilities of a 3-year-old, according to his teachers. He is unreasonably temperamental, misbehaves often in the classroom, and hardly ever utters a word.

"While he was in the hospital, we visited him often to make sure he knew we hadn't abandoned him or were dead. This is the first thing these children can imagine, and it affects them daily," Omar's instructor Zena Merish said.

Jamal, an autistic technology prodigy of the same age, bounces on the balls of his feet as he saunters around, seemingly oblivious to the social world around him, eagerly exploring the schoolyard. He is tall for his age, has a twitch over his right shoulder, and carries his awkward lankiness with an unidentifiable grace, towering over his peers. This is his second day.

Jamal was in a specialized education center in Syria before his father defected from the national army and the family was forced to flee their home in Hama. Because his father requires special permission to leave and return to the camps, Jamal hasn't been to school since they arrived, a year-and-a-half ago, while his two sisters have been able to attend the camp-run school.

Founder and educator Joudi al Bazari steals his attention momentarily, pulling him onto her lap for a puzzle. He gets bored quickly and squirms away to play by himself until the next flock of students huddle around him, much to his dismay.

"Jamal lives in his own head…but he is brilliant! We can work with him but he really needs a specialist, and individual attention, in order to make lasting progress," said al Bazari, whose own 8-year-old son, Nouraldin, is autistic.

Similarly gifted in a specialized area, math, Nouraldin barely speaks and cannot participate in the hourly sessions of the school day.

"I give my son a selection of markers. He always chooses black, and he will color the entire page black. Angry, expressive lines, until it's covered. I try to show him shapes, colors, but he has no interest. He is releasing something, something awful," Bazari describes.

Finding a new home

Grouped together due to a severe lack of resources, the children are of various education levels. Each of them has gone without formal schooling for at least two years and is benefiting enormously from the daily structure the camp provides. Come October, however, as normal schools resume their schedules, The Generations Center will have to find a new home, and the funding to pay for it, an unlikely scenario co-manager Amar Bitar concedes, given that they cannot currently afford notebooks for the students.

Bitar, Merish and al Bazari were all educators in Syria and met only recently here in Antakya. They decided to open an education center as soon as possible, unaffiliated with any organization and maintained only on private donations.

In partnership with her husband, al Bazari formally established the group three months ago. She used their private funds to do it, including providing its academic materials and paying salaries to its staff. She could no longer afford to compensate the teachers, so all eight of them have been working voluntarily for the last two months.

"If we miss one single day, the children's progress will suffer, we cannot stop," she said.

The challenges Bazari and her colleagues face are immense and the likelihood that they will not be able to continue their work is hard to ignore. An entirely new school, including materials, would cost upwards of $30,000, not including the land they either must buy or lease to build it on.

Though the odds of staying afloat are long, the instructors remain optimistic and pro-active in finding support.

"Some of these children want revenge. They want revenge because they have seen relatives die before their eyes; they have seen corpses in the streets, and we have the task of dealing with that," Bitar said. "It is not enough to simply accept these losses, we have to combat the years these children have lost or it will never be done. They'll disappear into the darkness."



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