At schools in Turkey, Syrian children learn lessons in tears
Aaliyah, a 13-year-old 7th grader from Idlib, Syria, loses her composure as she describes her experiences in the war during the first day of school for Syrian refugee children in the border city of Antakya, Turkey.
Stars and Stripes
ANTAKYA, Turkey — Math, science and tears marked the first day of school for Syrian refugee children in Turkey’s southernmost Hatay province.
Children crammed into tiny rooms — some sitting three to a desk — in scattered apartment buildings with no books, or facilities for children, such as a gym or playground.
Although teachers said they had no coherent lesson plans, children could be heard reciting their studies in unison. But underlying the outward sense of normalcy was a current of despair that students were unable to contain when asked about their lives in Syria and their current circumstances in Turkey.
“In Syria, there are planes, there are victims, and people are blown to pieces from Assad’s bombs,” said Aaliyah, 13, from Idlib, in northwestern Syria, as she broke down in tears at the Human Essence First School, when asked about what she had seen in her hometown before crossing the border into Turkey.
School administrators agreed to allow a reporter to talk with the students on condition their last names not be used to protect family still in Syria.
Administrators and teachers — all Syrian refugees themselves — said the majority of the students suffer from psychological issues. Amina Kosa, headmaster at the Mohamed al-Fath School, which is run by refugees who were teachers in Syria before the war, believes the children suffer from post-traumatic stress, something usually reserved for battle-weary soldiers.
“There is something psychological deep inside [the children],” said Human Essence First’s English teacher Mahmoun Rashid, who escaped Deir ez-Zur, in eastern Syria with his wife and four children. “You can’t imagine the psychological effects when you are about to die and an airplane loaded with bombs is just over you, and you are seconds away from dying.”
On a Sunday in mid-September, prior to the start of classes, the school had a festival that featured fireworks, Rashid said. He was heartbroken watching the children’s reaction.
“The kids said, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ ‘I want to go back.’ ‘I don’t want to stand by the window,’” Rashid said. “This is something that is unimaginable.”
Turkey and other nations like Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq have taken in an estimated 2 million Syrian refugees in the more than two years of civil war, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Most are packed into refugee camps. Another 4 million people have been displaced inside Syria and well over 100,000 have been killed.
“When Assad’s soldiers came, they killed everyone in front of us,” said 14-year-old Zahara, from Hamah in western Syria, unable to contain her tears.
“They killed my father,” said 12-year-old Osama as he stood wide-eyed at the front of Rashid’s English class. He then sat down and appeared to get back to his school work, but soon his head and shoulders drooped and his eyes welled with tears.
It is unclear just how many Syrian refugee children there are in places like Antakya, as not all register for classes. Educators estimated that there are around 5,000 in schools in Antakya alone. For the most part, the schools are located in converted apartments or dilapidated buildings provided by the Turkish government. They have no books or supplies, and their Syrian refugee teachers make about $175 per month for their services.
The Mohamed al-Fath School is located down a dusty dirt road in a three-story apartment building. The eight small classrooms serve 800 students, so they run classes in shifts — mornings and evenings — to accommodate everyone. Class sizes swell to as many as 40 in some of the smallest rooms, with three children crammed at a single desk. They were packed in shoulder to shoulder, making it impossible for anyone who wasn’t in the front row to leave the room without those in front moving out first.
“The large class sizes are the first problem for the teachers,” Kosa said. “There are no lesson plans. We are trying to take in all of the [Syrian refugee] students in Antakya and teach them something, so they don’t lose too much knowledge.”
Kosa said some of the students refer to the school as a prison. She has contacted Turkish officials and children’s charities seeking help in procuring better space or supplies but has so far not received any aid from those organizations, she said.
“It’s an apartment,” Kosa said. “It’s not healthy for the students. With no playground or sports facilities, even if there is a break, there is no place to go. Being a refugee student, they have suffered difficulties in Syria, and now they will suffer difficulties here.”
Down the street at the Human Essence First School, class sizes were slightly better and they even had a small playground across the street, but the building conditions were worse, in part because it was under construction. There were piles of debris and shattered building materials lying around the halls and staircases. Holes had been punched through walls in basement classrooms to serve as temporary windows.
Losing their childhood
Another major problem for the teachers is the different skill levels of the students, Kosa and teachers said. Some of the students polled in the classrooms at the al-Fath School said that they hadn’t been in school in a year or more.
Some students said they are working long days after school to help support their families in Turkey, coming home exhausted late at night.
With no sports or art classes, Kosa said, students draw posters, which they hang on the walls of the school. The drawings depicted tanks and explosions, the Free Syrian Army’s flag, anti-government slogans or Assad bathing in the blood of the people.
“These are a personal effort by the students,” Kosa said. “They are trying to grow their talents and express themselves.”
Human Essence First’s headmaster Gawash, who declined to give his last name, said he has seen another change in the students. His eyes welled with tears and he looked out the window for several seconds. The children play war now, he said, “because they saw their fathers” fighting. His hands held an imaginary machine gun.
“Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,” he said as he sprayed imaginary bullets.
Teachers at Antakya’s schools said that these children have lost their childhood, having to grow up very fast. They can talk about politics, war and even death as easily as any adult.
“Why hasn’t there been demonstrations around the world about Assad,” asked 13-year-old Zaha, as she sat in class at the Human Essence First School. The Idlib 7th-grader spoke without a hint of anger in her voice, eyes wide.
“Assad is the killer of my brothers and sisters,” she said. “We hate him. We want to kill him every day. We pray for that. We want to live free.”
A War of No Dreams
(A poem by Mahmoun Rashid, English Teacher at Human Essence First School in Antakya)
When I was a fetus, I had some beautiful dreams,
but the midwife pulled me out, saying you are in a war of no dreams
When I was a school boy, I had some beautiful dreams,
but the class mistress slapped me on the face, saying you are in a war with no dreams
When I was a young man, I had some beautiful dreams,
but my beloved abandoned me for a very rich man, saying believe me, we are in a war of no dreams
When I was at the battlefield, I had some beautiful dreams,
but a nameless bullet penetrated my heart. I fell down and slipped along asleep.
Then two dreadful angels came shouting — WAKE UP — You are now in a world of no dreams.