Ways to educate refugee children

An intercultural education model for Syrian refugee children in Turkey
DFID, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
DFID, flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Turkey needs to pay more attention to the education provided to refugee children. Among the Syrians who have been offered temporary protection status, more than 1.3 million are children under the age of 18.

Over the last five years, at least 150,000 Syrian children have been born in Turkey. Experts estimate that a clear majority of these refugee children will not return to their parents’ country of origin, but will grow up in Turkey. Yet more than 60 percent are not participating in formal education, and there is still no concrete plan to integrate them into Turkey’s educational system.

It might be more accurate to refer to this situation not as a refugee crisis, but rather as a children’s crisis, since approximately half of those who have been forced to leave their homelands are under 18 years of age. My goal is to identify and propose the most appropriate and sustainable educational model for refugee children, to deal with this quite big demographic change and prevent social problems in the future.

With the most recent wave of migration, the number of child refugees increased dramatically in Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon. Although the percentage of Syrian refugees relative to the overall population is larger in Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey hosts the largest number of Syrians in absolute terms.

The proportion of registered Syrians under international protection exceeds 3 percent in Turkey overall, although that number rises to about 20 percent and in some cases even to 50 percent in urban areas and certain regions. The issue of education for refugees is particularly sensitive in Turkey, not only because of the sheer numbers involved, but more importantly because of the prevailing social conditions. The most crucial challenge involves language differences.

Language has long been an issue in Turkey

After World War I, Turkey has sought to achieve a state of harmonious coexistence between Muslims and other religious groups and encourage the formation of a national identity by breaking with the multilingual character of the Ottoman period and promoting the use of the Turkish language. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, Turkish has been accepted as the sole official language and used as the language of education. Students may be taught Western languages or the languages of non-Muslim ethnic groups, but until the first few years of the current millennium, it was not permitted to instruct Muslim ethnic groups, mainly Kurds, Circassians and members of the Laz minority group, in their native languages.

Access to formal education is a challenge

Access to formal education is a serious challenge for Syrian children in Turkey. It is evident that many refugees would prefer to leave the camps to seek more sustainable livelihoods. Indeed, nine out of ten Syrians are now urban migrants in Turkey. Education, like other services, is more easily provided by the state when there is a large concentration of refugees than when they are scattered among different locations. According to UNHCR, UNICEF and AFAD, the schooling rate is about 80 percent in camps, but no more than 30 percent in urban settings. During my fieldwork, I visited two big refugee camps in Turkey. One in Öncüpınar, Kilis, which is located only a few meters from the Syrian border and Nizip in Gaziantep, which is next to three border towns.

“It is crucial to adopt an inclusive model of education that serves students with diverse educational needs.”

The camps provide numerous educational opportunities, from kindergarten to high school, as well as separate classes for students with disabilities and instruction by Syrian teachers. Students follow a Syrian curriculum. Turkish language lessons are available in camps, but learning Turkish doesn’t seem to be a matter of priority or necessity, as many families don’t know if they will remain in Turkey or move on to another country. In urban settings, children are more eager to learn Turkish in order to gain access to formal education. However, refugee children in urban areas have a harder time accessing education than their counterparts in camps.

The need to prevent the emergence of a “lost generation”

There are increasing calls for action to prevent the emergence of a “lost generation” of Syrians. According to ORSAM and TESEV, both governmental and non-governmental Turkish and international organizations have taken steps to provide informal education as a temporary substitute for formal education. While efforts are being made to enroll Syrian children in formal Turkish education systems, it is estimated that only 75,000 students are in fact enrolled in Turkish schools, while 245,000 receive instruction at temporary centers set up by the Ministry of Education. Further efforts are needed to facilitate and support the integration of Syrian children into Turkish schools.

“Only 75,000 students are in fact enrolled in Turkish schools, while 245,000 receive instruction at temporary centers set up by the Ministry of Education.”

Globally, refugee education has not had a positive history because of limited access and low quality. Policymakers have prioritized increasing access to education rather than improving quality. In the field, I have found that obstacles to access include lack of space, transportation issues, child labor, and early marriage. The main barriers, however, relate to language and curriculum in non-Arabic-speaking host countries. In Turkey, it is furthermore the weak emphasis on diversity and plurality in Turkish education history. These issues pose a critical challenge when seeking to provide high-quality education for both refugees and children from the host country.

The need for bilingualism

The problem for ethnic coexistence in the school context is not linguistic differences, but rather a lack of bilingual competence. I believe encouraging multiculturalism will increase the quality of education. The best course, in my view, is to adopt an intercultural model that encourages empathy and collaboration, rather than separating refugee children from their non-refugee peers. This model meets children’s needs for interaction and learning opportunities to stabilize their unsettled lives. I use the term “inclusive education” in this context because it is about each child’s right to participate and be included.

Recognition and acceptance of differences are fundamental to a culture that embraces the goal of living together in harmony. To promote such a culture, it is crucial to adopt an inclusive model of education that serves students with diverse educational needs.

Integrating refugee children into an educational system poses special challenges because of such factors as post-traumatic stress syndrome, discrimination and xenophobia in their lives and social environments. It is important to facilitate the acceptance of these children into the existing school system and help them to adapt.

According to the principle of social inclusion, all children, whatever their background, have a right to high-quality education. This, of course, requires that students gain competence in the Turkish language. If this effort is successful, however, it will offer an opportunity to modify Turkey’s education system in the interest of student-centered learning and intercultural education, with a view to promoting cultural diversity.