In school on Syria border, Turkey's challenges as EU gatekeeper are clear

In school on Syria border, Turkey's challenges as EU gatekeeper are clear

SURUÇ - Reuters
In school on Syria border, Turkeys challenges as EU gatekeeper are clear

A Syrian refugee teacher distributes books to her refugee students in their classroom at Fatih Sultan Mehmet School in Karapürçek district of Ankara, Turkey, September 28, 2015. Reuters Photo

So remote are their hopes of returning to Syria that even some of the teachers in the schools for refugees in Turkey quit to go to Europe. 

"Two teachers left from our school, but from another school five teachers went," said Ahmet Shahine, a 35-year old with greying hair who teaches Arabic at a refugee school set up within a primary school in the border town of Suruç. 

As Ankara and Brussels hash out a deal to stem the flow of Syrians to Europe, the factors which drive them beyond their first safe haven show how difficult that task will be. 

The Suruç school, run by charity Concern Worldwide and financed by the European Commission's humanitarian arm, caters to a few hundred children and their teachers who fled last year's Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) siege of Kobani, a Kurdish town over the border in Syria. 

The departure of the teachers highlights how billions of dollars spent on 2.2 million refugees in Turkey have not succeeded in dissuading many from trying to make a better future in Europe. 

Shahine and his Syrian colleagues are paid $220 a month, technically referred to as an "incentive" rather than a salary because they are not allowed to register as formal workers. The amount is well below Turkey's $340 minimum wage. 

Emergency aid including basics like rice and sugar, provided by international donors when those who fled Kobani first crossed the border, stopped some six months ago, the teachers say. Now it is even harder for the families whose children attend classes to make ends meet. 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Istanbul on Oct. 18 to discuss an EU "action plan" agreed on Oct. 15 involving a possible 3 billion euros in aid ($3.4 bln). 

She said Europe's efforts to filter and process the biggest mass movement of people since World War Two would not work without the cooperation of Turkey, through which the vast majority pass. 

But many refugees, who have shunned state-run camps, struggle to find stable incomes in impoverished parts of the country, where locals live scarcely better than them and do not think they should get special treatment. 

In one telling statistic, Turkey's 26 refugee camps, where food, shelter and education are provided, can host 330,000 people but house only 274,000 at the moment. 

In the school in Suruç, girls make up the bulk of those in the classrooms. Many of the boys have to work to help support their parents, who left everything behind as they fled Kobani and the surrounding villages. 

Shyar, 11, works at a white goods repair shop in the mornings and evenings, attending the school just for a few hours in the afternoon. He also works at the weekends. 

"I love my job and I love this school as well. But I am too tired to do homework," he says, fiddling shyly with his hands, as his sister and her friends giggle in the background. 

He wants to be a pharmacist when he grows up. 
"A new Afghanistan" 

Some 60-70,000 Syrian children in the Turkish province of Şanlıurfa, which includes Suruç, are outside the education system, more than are in school, according to Ömer Polat, deputy director of the local education authority. 

He said the model used in the Suruç school and others like it was not sustainable. New school buildings were needed, as well as a legal framework to hire teachers and allow them to benefit from full employee rights. 

"Turkish host communities have shared everything since the beginning, but it's been four years... in the long term there have to be other solutions," he told Reuters. 

Russia's military intervention in Syria risks prolonging the war, Turkey's leaders have warned, forecasting a new wave of migration with which they will struggle to cope, and which will ultimately press on Europe's borders. 

Ankara has lobbied the United States and other allies in vain to establish a "safe zone" in northern Syria where the displaced can shelter, preventing them crossing into Turkey. As Europe turns to Turkey for help, it is an idea Ankara is pushing again. 

"If we are late on this, Europe could face a refugee and security crisis unlike any it has experienced, and a new Afghanistan will emerge at one end of the Mediterranean," Ömer Çelik, spokesman for Turkey's caretaker Justice of Development Party (AKP) government, said on Oct. 16.  

Creating a zone within Syria safe enough to shelter displaced civilians would mean clearing it of ISIL and other groups and securing it militarily. The fate of Kobani highlights how big that challenge would be. 

A year after the ISIL assault began, turning Kobani into a symbol of Kurdish resistance, hopes that it could quickly be rebuilt have been dashed. 

Kurdish-led forces, helped by coalition air strikes, pushed the Islamist radical group out of the town in January, but civilians have been slow to return. And with good reason. 

The local administration says that while some 180,000 people have gone back, 61 have been killed and more than 600 wounded by mines. A fresh assault by ISIL in June killed at least 145 people and prompted aid agencies to leave. 

A few of the hardiest have since returned, including two organizations specialized in land mine clearance. But it is unclear how long the clean-up will take. 

"The attacks (in June) uncovered a lot of weak points in security," said Idris Nassan, a Kobani official, although he added that steps including the establishment of a civilian force to help protect the town had since been taken. 

Cihan Halet, 25, a third-grade teacher at the refugee school in Suruç, said Kobani was simply too unstable for her two sisters, elderly father and sick mother to return. 

"Everything is destroyed. There are no jobs, we don't have anything," she said.