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A Study in Conflict: getting Syrian teens back to school in Turkey

This March marks five grim years since 14 boys in Dara’a, Syria were imprisoned for writing “the regime must go” on a schoolyard wall. In their small protest, they unwittingly sparked a revolution.

Young people were at the heart of the Syrian Arab Spring, and they have borne the brunt of the instability that has followed. For example, in Syria 12,000 children have been killed since the start of the war, over three million children have been internally displaced, and unemployment among youth is now over 30 percent, up 11 points from pre-war levels. Likewise, before the war, education in Syria was free and two-thirds of the children—both boys and girls—went to secondary school. Now, nearly three million children in Syria have no access to school; their old institutions have been bombed out or are used as command centers.

Among the 1.4 million school-aged children who have fled to neighboring countries, 700,000 do not attend school. In Turkey, which has welcomed 663,000 school-aged children, teens are pressed into adulthood too soon. One of them is Ghufran Shlash—a petite 17-year old who was in eighth grade when an airstrike crushed her school. “I went to school, even when it was dangerous,” said Shlash, speaking of her life in Syria. But the airstrike “destroyed everything, not just the school, papers, books—all evidence that we had ever studied there.”

When her family fled to Turkey in 2014, they couldn’t find any school where Shlash could enroll. Without other real hopes for her future, two months

after arriving, Shlash married a 22-year old Syrian working as a tailor’s assistant. He expected her to stay home, so she quit the job she had found selling handbags. “The hardest part about life now,” she said, “is that I can’t go out often…There’s no life here.”

Shlash’s story is not unique. The child marriage rate among Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan has more than doubled from 12 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in 2014, according to a UNICEF study. Having lost their homes and livelihoods, many parents marry off daughters to give them a better life and to guard against sexual abuse. Some girls, left with no educational or career path, push for marriage as a way to gain some agency in their lives, but once married their freedom is often severely restricted.

Child labor and recruitment to armed groups are prevalent as well. As Zeynep Turkmen, a lecturer at Bogazici University and education expert, explains, migrant children face economic pressure to engage in, “begging, child labor, crime, prostitution, and radicalization.” Being in school offers protection from these harmful behaviors, but in such circumstances, education is a luxury that migrants cannot afford.

Not helping matters is that education doesn’t seem to be a priority for donors either. In 2015, donor governments gave $49 million through the UN Syria Regional Response Plan to pay for schooling for Syrian refugees. But the United Nations says it requires more than three times that amount. Meanwhile, Turkey has spent over $7.2 billion on 2.5 million Syrian refugees—an admirable sum (and more than any other country), but still not enough.

To be sure, Turkey, which recently appealed to donor countries for $89 million to support education for Syrians, has made strides in improving the odds for the 450,000 Syrian children who do not attend school in the country. Ankara’s initial response to the influx of migrants was mainly confined to some 20 camps on Turkey’s southern border; in those days, many assumed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly and that migrants would soon return home. But by 2014, when neighboring countries had closed their borders and Syrians were fleeing to Turkey in unprecedented numbers, officials began to address the needs of children outside of camps.

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