The city of Raqqah, Syria, has been in the news lately as the headquarters of ISIS, the terrorist organization that calls itself the “Islamic State.” Zehra is a 14-year-old girl from there. Her mother, father and 10 brothers and sisters — Zehra’s the youngest — fled a-year-and-a-half ago when intense fighting broke out. But here in Urfa, Turkey, the bright-eyed teenager says she has little to do with her time.
“When I was in Syria I was in school,” she says. “But since I’ve arrived here I haven’t been able to. I want to, I’d like to, but I’m not.”
She speaks from inside a community center. It opened its doors in May thanks to international donors. It’s not a formal school but it does offer classes in Turkish, English, music and dance. Unlike many Arabic-language schools in the area it’s free so it attracts Syrians living in the neighborhood.
Zehra’s family has limited means. Her father was a construction worker and her mother has her hands full with a large family. Zehra has always wanted to be a doctor, she says, to save lives. But when she told her family she says they smiled and said "inshallah" — or "God-willing." She says she asked her father to enroll her in school. But they don’t have the means to pay the tuition. “We went to schools, but they asked for money. My family cannot provide this and also my family doesn’t care a lot,” she says.
Her friend Amina is a 17-year-old from Kobane, a predominately Kurdish city about 40 miles south of here. She and her family have been in Turkey for about two months. Kobane’s been in the news a lot. Under siege by Islamic State fighters, US-led airstrikes and peshmerga fighters from northern Iraq have kept the town from falling. “We left because war started in Kobane and the crimes committed by ISIS against the Kurds there,” she says.
Her parents are looking to enroll her in an Arabic-language school but she’s not too interested; she wants to go home to Syria. “I really liked my friends there, my teachers and everything about my school in Kobane,” she says.
Carol Batchelor, the UNHCR’s chief in Turkey says the majority of refugees — living outside of government-run camps — are missing out on getting an education.
“Of the neighboring host countries, the children outside of school are highest in Turkey; not in Lebanon where more than 25 percent are Syrian and not in Jordan. This is an extremely challenging statistic,” she said at a recent Brookings Institution conference.
Turkey has been generous to Syrians, who it terms as "guests," but not legal refugees. This has made it difficult for Turkey to receive international funding to house its refugees so the government has largely had to shoulder the burden alone. In fact, a report by the International Crisis Group this spring says that since 2011, Turkey has spent more than $3 billion to house and feed its Syrian "guests."
Outside the border city of Akcakale lies the Suleyman Shah camp, with an unofficial population of 30,000 people. It’s the largest in Turkey, though receives little international media attention. Despite the crammed conditions, young refugees are at least guaranteed food, shelter, medical care and education.
This camp is more primitive than some, with residents living in tents situated on bare earth rather than in solid, metal structures. Inside this camp the Turkish relief agency provides the estimated 8,000 school-aged children free primary and secondary schooling. There are about 75 teachers here — that’s more than 100 pupils per teacher.
Muhammad is a 24-year-old volunteer teacher from Idlib province in Syria. We meet at a cafe in Akcakale so we can speak more freely. He had just received his list of students for the semester and he says he’s nervous about the class size. “I was shocked when I get in my class today. I found about 60 students in the class,” he says.
Despite the challenges, he says he hopes Syrian students will continue their education after high school. Places are being made in Turkish universities. Huseyin Ortac, the camp’s general manager, says already the first batch of students have been accepted to start this fall in Turkish universities and he hopes to more than double the number next year. “There were 40 students who graduated high school and applied to a Turkish language institute and according to their marks 12 were accepted to Turkish universities,” he says.
But at the café, I had asked Muhammad whether this was true about Syrians finding places in Turkish universities. He had said most families had declined the offer because of money problems and the fear of sending students away — especially girls — to strange cities. “It’s nearly impossible to send girls to universities,” he says. “For parents, they always refuse to send their girls, especially if the university is in another city. This is the most serious challenge.”
Unlike in Syria, where many young women enrolled in universities to become professionals, those opportunities aren’t the same for refugees girls, he says. “There is no problem in teaching girls in the primary school or in the 12th grade. But after, it’s nearly impossible to send girls to universities,” he says. And as for the hundreds of thousands of teenagers living outside the camps — either in apartments or on the street — it is in some ways more difficult for them.
Naya, for example, in the city of Urfa, is a 21-year-old from the city of Qamishli. Her father was a Syrian military officer who defected in 2011, forcing the family of eight to flee overnight. “When I arrived in Urfa I had no formal high school transcripts to show what grade I was in Syria,” she says. “So I would have to start school from the beginning to get my diploma and apply for university.”
It’s not that Naya doesn’t have ambition. She wants to study business administration, but has no way to apply for college without a high school transcript. “I’ve always wanted to work in a bank. I love numbers, I like the way they switch on my brain,” she says. Her situation is not unique. Religious conservatism can also present obstacles to girls seeking higher education. Naya’s friend, 21-year-old Yara, comes from Raqqah. “I don’t wear the Islamic headscarf and at the first school some of the teachers insisted I wear one and even after I did, I didn’t feel comfortable and left,” she says.
She’s angry at people trying to impose their values on her. “I know the real Islam is not like that,” she says, “but these people have strong political views that she says are alien to me.” The result is she’s now been out of school for nearly four years, one of literally millions of Syrians refugees simply wishing the war would end so they can get on with their lives.