What will they learn?

Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Syria's Refugees Need Schools

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Sometimes, you meet an idealist.

Fouad Sheikh Asana, a teacher and former school inspector from Aleppo, Syria, doesn't think of himself as one, which makes him the best kind. His extraordinary story made me think in a different way about the refugee crisis that we in the developed world are doing our level best to ignore.

In 2012, Asana fled Aleppo and stopped in the small Turkish border town of Kilis, just 55 miles away. Many of his fellow refugees were children -- as are just over half of the 60 million people displaced by conflict or persecution worldwide. And he worried that with nothing to do all day, those kids would start to fight with the local youngsters. So he found some tables, set them up in the town's small central park, and, together with other refugee teachers from Aleppo, started an open-air school for 1,200 of them.

QuickTake Political Asylum

"I thought maybe we'd be here for four months," he told me. Four years after the start of the Syrian conflict, an estimated 100,000 Syrians now live in Kilis, a town with a native population of around 90,000.

The park school proved to be too popular. All the parents wanted their children to be educated and, outside the refugee camps that Turkey had set up, few Arabic schools were available. Officially, there are 1.8 million refugees in Turkey, of whom about 220,000 live in full-service camps, with food, medical care and schools provided. Unofficially, there are many more -- the most common guess is up to 2.5 million -- but many are afraid to register. After living in Syria, they don't trust governments. So 90 percent of the refugees live among the general population.

Those I met on a recent trip to the Syrian border expressed gratitude at Turkey's decision to accept them and give them access to medical care. But they were treated as temporary guests, without a right to apply for asylum. Until last October, they couldn't even register for work papers, which meant the Syrian children couldn't go to Turkish schools and the adults could get work only illegally.

"We don't want to settle; we want to go home," said Asana. "But until we do, we need to live." And what chance do Syrians have to one day create a successful, tolerant, discerning country if their children grow up without education?

As winter approached, the local authorities in Kilis were sympathetic. When Asana went to ask for a building to house his school, they gave him one. By last year, 2,100 kids were attending classes there in three shifts a day. Asana had to turn away another 6,000. The language is Arabic, and the textbooks are copies of the ones he used in Aleppo.

Fouad Asana, teacher and idealist.
Photographer: Marc Champion

"There are no politics here," he said when I asked about the curriculum and the mix of religions among the students filing into the school outside his office. There are kids from Alawite as well as Sunni areas of Syria, said Asana, in a reference to the religion followed by President Bashar al-Assad and many of his supporters. "We don't ask what religion they are. We don't want to share hate."

That's also why he sticks to the old-regime textbooks (with a few excisions in the history department). He wants exactly the same standards as before the war. He accepts money only from Turkish charities that don't set conditions on what's taught. There's enough to pay the teachers 500 Turkish Lira a month, he said. That's about $190 -- not enough for the teachers to live on. Asana asked for help from UNICEF but was told they could operate only in the refugee camps.

Last October, Turkey changed its policy of pretending the Syrians would be going home at any moment. Now Syrian children can register to attend Turkish schools, and since then 10 Arabic schools have opened in Kilis. Asana's school now operates a more humane two shifts for 1,300 children. All 10 of the new schools in Kilis are run by Turkish government administrators, with teachers and funds provided by the refugees and charities. But the burden on Turkey for accommodating so many refugees is huge: $5.5 billion by April, according to the government. (It has complained that the rest of the world has added only $306 million.) Meanwhile, resentment is growing among native Turks who believe that Syrian refugees are driving rental costs up and wages down.

Asana's big worry now is what will happen to his students when they graduate. This year, he said, Libya (of all countries) will begin qualifying Syrian refugee children in Turkey to move onto higher education.

"We are a big number for Turkey to handle, so I think the best thing is for Europe to take some of these people," said Asana. He's perplexed about why it isn't happening and why Syrians have to risk their lives and pay criminal gangs to get them into these countries illegally to apply for asylum.

"There should be visas for our young people who want to complete their studies. Then they will be able to come back to Syria when it's safe again and rebuild it. They will bring back European thought, qualifications, culture and ideas," he says. In particular, he said, they would bring back a true understanding of democracy.

Unfortunately, sending students to Western universities in the hopes they will return and transform their home countries has not worked out that well, says Matt Trevithick, an American who worked on aid programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. "They don't come back," he said. Trevithick is now director of research at the Syria Research & Evaluation Organization in Gaziantep, the nearest big city to Kilis. He collects data from inside Syria for aid agencies working there, so they can design and monitor programs.

Deep down, I suspect Asana knows that the chances of rebuilding a "European" Syria in his lifetime -- he's 53 -- are approximately nil.

Nations aren't idealistic -- especially European ones in their current anti-immigrant mood. Yet self-interest would suggest that it makes sense to help provide the money for charities to pay Syrian teachers enough to live, and to help Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and other nations hosting very large numbers of refugees with the means to provide schools. That way, Syrians might not think their only recourse is to get to Europe. They may also grow up less vulnerable to radicals and less resentful of a West that ignored them.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mary Duenwald at mduenwald@bloomberg.net