Unlike his staff, Dr Hamed Dadanchi has not seen the ravages of war that have torn through his homeland. Four months ago, he and his wife Latifa established the Züheriye School for Syrian refugees, in Reyhanlı, southern Turkey.
Used to the efficiency of his dental clinic in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which he has run for the last 15 years, Dadanchi is frustrated by the working conditions of Reyhanlı. He returns once a month to ensure the school is running smoothly. “There are many problems,” he said, “We have to work with what we have, … and when I leave, order disappears.”
"Right now the big fight is my future, and I’ve got to study.”
An estimated 495,000 Syrian refugees have now crossed into Turkey, but with many of the refugee camps at full capacity, nearly 290,000 have been forced to forge lives for themselves in Turkey’s towns and cities. These Syrians live beyond the scope of most international and Turkish aid, and, with assistance from the wider Syrian diaspora, they are fighting for survival.
This is no less true of education: while schools have been set up inside the camps, there has been little provision for those beyond. UNHCR estimates half of the refugees in Turkey to be children, and many have missed months or years of school.
In the border town of Reyhanlı, where a third of the population are Syrian refugees, there are now five unofficial Arabic schools. Most lack funding and resources. With 500 children and 33 professors, Züheriye School is the largest of them.
The Dadanchis, the school’s sole financiers, initially budgeted for only 200 students, but a sense of moral obligation caused them to take more. So far, according to Mrs Dadanchi, the school has been “a one man show,” receiving no help from Turkish or international aid organisations. The school is indicative of the autonomy that much of the Syrian humanitarian response has been forced into over the course of the conflict.
The school sits on the second floor of a concrete apartment block in downtown Reyhanlı. Its dim corridors echo with the sound of children’s singing – “we will get our freedom, we will get our freedom from Bashar al-Assad” – and in the classrooms, rows of students scribble notes or stare at whiteboards, deep in thought. Even in the relative safety of Turkey, Syria is on everyone’s mind.
Class examples are drawn from Syria, and their poems, one teacher explained, are derived from “from the terrible pain and suffering the Syrian people are experiencing.” Free Syria is scrawled on the walls, and leering from one is a blood red cartoon of Assad the butcher. “The children,” it was pointed out, “have all seen much worse with their own eyes.”
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Though Syrian in spirit, the school has to deal with the reality of being based in Turkey and, according to Dadanchi, “continuity” remains the biggest challenge. He is prepared to fund the school for as long as he can, but is constantly worried by the Turkish authorities’ next move.
So far their policy has been to turn a blind eye, for which Dadanchi is extremely grateful, and for this reason, both Turkish flags and portraits of Atatürk have been left hanging in each classroom.
But from a long-term perspective, there is less certainty. Many Turkish residents in the Reyhanlı’s Hatay Province have been growing increasingly hostile to the presence of the Syrian refugees. In May, two weeks after the school opened, two bombs ripped through the centre of Reyhanlı killing 52 and injuring many more. The second blast was only 50 metres away from the school, shattering the windows and injuring some of the staff.
Up to 40 percent of Hatay’s population are of the Alawite sect, and many have been less than sympathetic to the Turkish government’s backing of the Syrian opposition. Following the bombs, a number of refugees in Reyhanlı were attacked. “Attendance dropped dramatically after the explosion,” said Mr Kasim, an English teacher, “many children were too scared to leave their houses, and lots of families went back to Syria.”
The school has started to teach Turkish
The future of the school is tied to the Syrian conflict, the outcome of which remains entirely uncertain. “I think I will stay here till the end of the world,” said one teacher, “It does not seem it will come to an end.” Dadanchi was only moderately more hopeful. “Change will come,” he said, “but it will cost money and souls.”
The school has started to teach Turkish, possibly to appease the Turkish authorities or to help the children integrate into wider society. Either way, it's a sign they are settling for the long haul.
From a window at the back of the school one can see Syria in the distance, across the plains. Most of the children have relatives fighting there, and the older students want to join the fight for the future of their country. For now though, they are focusing on their studies, an opportunity many of Syria’s children do not have.
In one class, 17-year-old Abdullah is studying hard for his exams. “I’m not thinking (that I will fight in Syria),” he said, “I will.” After a moment, he reconsidered. “But right now the big fight is my future, and I’ve got to study.”