It’s 8 p.m. and 13-year-old Mohammed has just returned home from work in a remote Istanbul suburb, an hour-long bus ride away. His mother has anxiously been waiting for him, and is breastfeeding his infant brother.
Sweat runs down Mohammed’s temples, as if he had just been playing soccer with friends. Instead, he spent the day working in a textiles workshop, where he earns the money to feed his five other family members.
“It is not my will to work. I want to go to school,” he says, exhausted and avoiding eye contact as he brushes the hair away from his forehead.
Mohammed’s family fled Syria in 2014. He had been the top student in his district in Aleppo before Assad’s forces flattened the school. He has had no formal education since.
Now he looks after his 3-month-old brother, 11-year-old sister, 5-year-old brother, his mother and his father, who was blinded during a beating in an Aleppo prison. They live in a mold-infested one-room basement apartment in Istanbul’s Fatih neighborhood. He’s had to shelve his dreams of becoming a doctor.
There are 25 formal refugee camps in southern Turkey, but the vast majority of the nearly 2 million Syrian refugees in Turkey live outside the camps. Istanbul hosts the largest such Syrian community, and of the 330,000 Syrian refugees living in the city, 83,000 are school-age children. Only a quarter receive some form of education, according to the Syrian Education Commission, the de facto educational authority of the Syrian opposition active in Syria and Turkey. The system suffers from limited funds, facilities and infrastructure, and has left many children behind, say Syrian education activists.
Although the Turkish government has set out a policy to accommodate Syrian children in its public schools, the complex registration process and the language barrier discourage parents from signing their children up for a system that is already overloaded and offers no preparatory classes.
“I put my children into a Turkish school but Turkish children treated them badly, making fun of their limited Turkish,” said Eman Izi, 36, whose husband runs an Islamic clothing business in Istanbul. “They were going to school but without understanding anything so we had to put them into a Syrian school.”
Eman and her husband now pay 100 Turkish lira ($32) per month for each of their three children to attend a private Syrian education center, whose quality is far inferior to what they experienced in Damascus before the war began, Izi said. Compared to the price of private education in Turkey, these are modest sums. But many parents are unable to afford the expense. As a result, their children have no access to any kind of schooling.
Instead, they beg or sell tissues and bottled water in busy traffic at junctions and on highways throughout Istanbul. Others, like Mohammed, work in the backstreet sweatshops that are taking advantage of a growing pool of migrant labor.
Drugs and exploitation are a common threat for street children, but Syrian and Turkish education activists are now mostly concerned about the influence of extremist religious groups who target minors on the streets or at unofficial education centers that are not closely supervised by relevant authorities.
“Some teenagers we interviewed last year talked about being subjected to Islamic State propaganda; ideas like the West killing Muslims instead of the Assad regime,” said Dr. Abdulrahman Kowara, the 58-year-old director of the Syrian Education Commission.
“We immediately took action, tried to revert the damage in constant dialogue with these children, but it’s physically impossible to track down these illegal centers one by one in a mega-metropolis like Istanbul with 14 million people.”
Turkey’s Education Ministry started to formally recognize temporary education centers established by Syrian aid organizations in September 2014. But there are still an unknown number of unregistered education centers that have yet to apply. So far, only 54 centers have been authorized in Istanbul, the local Education Ministry office said. The Syrian Education Commission supports these centers in providing free textbooks for children, developing a pool of Syrian teachers for recruitment and offering bursaries for children of low- or no-income families.
But students won’t receive a diploma or any proof of attendance. In a country where certificates are a prerequisite for a good job or a credible university education, parents come to consider these makeshift educational centers as a waste of time and effort.
The Education Ministry argues that it takes more than school premises and textbooks provided by the Syrian Education Commission — albeit in compliance with the Syrian national curriculum — to qualify for internationally acceptable diplomas.
“They have their own teachers, their own system, and all we do is superficial monitoring,” said a local education ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “For the sake of uniformity in Turkish education, these centers should be inspected thoroughly and not be allowed to turn into Trojan horses, bearing numerous risks, including ideological indoctrination.”
Turkish education activists criticize the lack of language support in public schools, something which would allow Syrian and other refugee children to benefit from licensed education. They also highlight the importance of closer monitoring of alternative Syrian education centers.
“There has recently been an educational void in Turkey. Nowhere is being inspected properly,” said Dikmen Onat, chairwoman of the All Teachers Syndicate, one of Turkey’s education labor unions. “As a teacher, I strongly support the right to education but demand thorough inspections of all Arabic education centers so that we do not end up with a phenomenon like the Islamic State in Turkey in the future.”
Syrian education activists agree.
“We try to keep tabs on these centers, but is it sufficient? Of course, not,” said Kowara of the Syrian Education Commission. “There might be unregistered centers out there funded by unknown foundations or parties. We inform the ministry as soon as we detect them but ultimately we need a better centralized system.”
The commission officials regularly stroll around main junctions and streets in Istanbul in an attempt to find school-age children who are out begging or working illegally, register them in schools, and help them to fill the gaps in their education before they find the opportunity to take up their studies with their age group again.
The secluded entrance of Efdalzade Mosque, located on a busy Fatih side street, opens out onto a tranquil courtyard. The sounds of children reciting their times tables can be heard through open windows.
Once used for public Koran studies, four tiny rooms in the 15th-century mosque have recently been converted to classrooms for Syrian children who could not join Syrian temporary schools because of the gaps in their education.
“Turkish schools said they had no places and Syrian schools are expensive,” said Ali Ezzo, 11, whose parents left Aleppo with six children two years ago. His Turkish is fluent. Wearing low-rise jeans, a red plaid shirt, an oversized red watch and a spikey hair-do, the boy had the style of a typical urban Turkish youth. “I used to sell water, now I translate for real estate agents. I want to come to school as long as they accept me there for free.”
Ali was seven years old when he stopped going to school in Aleppo. At age 9 he had lost all of his literacy skills and was selling bottled water when Syrian Education Commission officials spotted him on a street in Fatih. That was four months ago. He is now in third grade and joins morning classes for four hours every day before going to work to help his father support the family. Like his fellow students, Ali studies the Koran for half an hour and Arabic and other subjects for the rest of the morning.
Nine-year-old Ramazan Shabo, still struggles with first grade Arabic, and squints as he tries to follow his teacher’s writing on the board. He constantly fiddles with the broken glasses that are held together with tape.
“I go to the Fatih mosque to sell tissues after school. I like it here but have to work to pay our rent,” he said. “I miss Aleppo. It was a better life there.”
The Syrian Education Commission has set up 15 similar preparatory centers of its own in Istanbul. The goal is to establish at least 100, staffed with psychological counselors for children who have been traumatized by the conflict, Kowara said.
The commission raises awareness for projects that require funding through an international network of contacts, and has received large donations from private donors and international aid groups. Almost all have been blocked by the United States’ monetary authorities.
“When the description on the wired U.S. dollar amount says ‘Syria,’ the transfer gets blocked or sent back,” Kowara said. “If we had received all the funds wired to us without any problem last year, two-thirds of our children would not have been out in the streets today. We’re fully transparent, all about education and cannot comprehend such restrictions.”
The commission tries to fill the gap with donations from locals or the Turkish state, which has already spent more than $4.5 billion on Syrian refugees since the beginning of the conflict in 2011.
The European Union Trust Fund, a new initiative part of the pact’s regional strategy to combat the ISIL threat, launched its first project to support Syrian refugees on September 14: €17.5 million to improve access to education and provide psychosocial support to more than 200,000 Syrian children in Turkey.
“Syria is losing a whole generation to war and exile,” said Federica Mogherini, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission, in a written statement. “A pen and a book can give hope to Syrian children. They are the best weapon against hatred and radicalization.”
At least 320,000 of Turkey’s nearly 2 million Syrian refugees have no plans to return to Syria, and want to either stay in Turkey or resettle in Europe or the U.S., according to a recent survey by the Xsight Social Research Institute based in London, education of these minors was no longer an issue for Turkey alone, activists claimed.
“These children, if left uneducated, will harm Syria, Turkey and the entire world in the future,” Kowara said, flipping through the pages of Arabic textbooks that had arrived from the printing house.
“I see these children as time bombs, ready to explode any time. I see the expression of detachment on their faces. It is up to the world to help the future generations of Syria as much as their own.”