Article written October 2015. Earlier this year UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speaking in Kuwait, warned that Syria’s children continue to suffer on what he called “a scale that haunts the soul”.
More than four years since the Syria crisis began in 2011, stories depicting families desperately seeking refuge have now become common place in the headlines of the worldwide press. Men, women and children cross borders into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, attempting dangerous journeys, facing terrible uncertainty. What is and always has been a human story – a human crisis, is now being portrayed as such, on social media and in the pages of international newspapers. Heart-breaking images show the innocent victims of the ongoing civil war.
As of September 2015 the number of Syrians in Turkey reached 1,938,999. Alarmingly, 1,050,937 are children. (Source: UNICEF). Since the crisis began, Turkey has maintained an emergency response and declared a temporary protection regime, housing refugees or ‘guests’ in 23 government run camps. The Turkish government coordinates with international aid agencies such as the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Program (WFP), The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and private NGOs. Access to education for Syrian children is a challenge. Turkish schools simply cannot accommodate the swell in numbers, and the language barrier is a big factor, with Syrian children speaking Arabic, and the Turkish education system and teaching being predominantly in Turkish.
Many children have not had the opportunity to go to school in recent years, making entry to schooling according to age and ability complicated. As more and more people flee Syria, such dramatic displacement means almost 85% now find themselves living outside the government run camps.
As part of the United Nations, UNICEF has the mandate to work globally for the rights of every child. In Turkey, UNICEF’s emergency programme focuses on education and child protection for Syrian children and for vulnerable Turkish children in host communities. UNICEF explains: “At the onset of the Syria crisis response, the Syrian population was housed in camps in Turkey, making it possible for us to reach large numbers of children with educational opportunities. “However, over time with the crisis in Syria triggering the largest refugee influx in recent history, Syrians are now spread over the south east region of Turkey, and in urban areas. Since then, the education access rate is much lower, especially outside the camps. Our strategy is to increase access to education by creating extra learning spaces. This is done through the construction of extra classrooms at schools, through the use of pre-fabricated school buildings, through converting existing buildings into classrooms and through refurbishing existing schools”.
In 2013, Soroptimists from the Netherlands became aware of the situation and the shocking extent of the suffering. “The Syria crisis was clearly devastating for all those involved”, says Margit van Hoeve, SI Gouda, Netherlands. “People were being deprived of so very much and it was important to us that we did not sit back and watch children be deprived of their future”. Members of SI Gouda and I made a decision that we must do something”.
Doing something for this group of Soroptimists meant actively seeking out opportunities; finding a means to make a difference. A meeting with UNICEF Netherlands and UNICEF Turkey became the turning point and lead to a partnership; a way forward for Soroptimists to actively focus their activities and assist those caught up in the crisis. UNICEF fit the Soroptimist targets, providing a concrete plan with which they could focus on providing education to the young generation.
Syria ‘Back to School’ was launched in 2014 and is set to run until 2016, with the main aim of giving children outside the camps the opportunity to access education. Seventy-six (out of 101) Soroptimist clubs within the Dutch Union have now joined together and are actively involved in fundraising for Syria ‘Back to School’. An executive party has been established – a national task force in the Netherlands, with the objective of supporting, stimulating and informing clubs. Sub-teams have also been set up in order to develop activities and communication and expand international reach for the project, so that Syria ‘Back to School’ remains at the forefront of people’s minds.
“Overall winner of the ‘Educate to lead award’ for the Soroptimist International of Europe Best Practice Awards 2015, the planned Soroptimist contribution to Syria ‘Back to School’ is 300,000 euros for the whole period, more if possible. Margit van Hoeve explains: “Our contribution is currently financing teaching materials, teacher training, together with school supplies such as rucksacks, furniture and school books. We’ll try to facilitate the education of up to 2100 children, which requires a minimum of 100,000 euros per year”. Margit adds: “Through the partnership with UNICEF we aim to improve the situation of vulnerable children in Turkey. UNICEF collaborates with the Turkish government to improve the access to quality education. Our goal is to drive change forward and make education for these children a reality”.
UNICEF adds: “Education in all its aspects is vital to instil in children hope for the future, as well as to prevent a lost generation. Whilst the number of children requiring support increases, parents and other caregivers are themselves victims of trauma and less able to support their children. Acute levels of stress and insecurity are evident in children and their caregivers. Education is considered fundamental to create continuity, a sense of normalcy and to improve the wellbeing, resilience and access to relevant information by children and their families during times of conflict, early recovery and development”.
Emine Erdem of the Soroptimist Turkish Union talks of their efforts: “We witness the turmoil of Syrian refugees every day. Seeing scattered families everywhere whose lives have been torn apart in recent years because of the tragic civil war that has struck their homeland. Yet, the future rests in the children, and I am sure Soroptimist contributions will make a difference in their lives. It was with great admiration that I learnt about the Dutch Union’s Syria ‘Back to School’ project during my term as the Assistant Programme Director of SIE. The Syrian crisis is a tragedy especially for children. Lives are devastated but we still have the future to save in the name of children. The Syrian problem will affect generations so it is truly more appropriate that Soroptimists committed themselves to a long-term project rather than a one-time in-kind or financial aid”.