Education for Syrian children in Turkey: Turkish or Arabic?

Education for Syrian children in Turkey: Turkish or Arabic?

Education is the most urgent issue, according to Murat Erdoğan, an Ankara-based academic who has been working intensively on the issue of Syrian refugees. Erdoğan was among the first to call on the government to stop seeing Syrian refugees as temporary “guests.”  He has been urging the government to face the fact that Syrians are here to stay and therefore it must not lose time developing policies accordingly.

Erdoğan indicated providing education for Syrians is the most urgent problem but, it is an equally sensitive and complex one. It is sensitive because it involves principles like “education in the students’ mother tongue,” a concept Turkey is allergic to due to its domestic constraints. It is complex because the state does not have the means to answer the needs of 1.047 million Syrian kids, of which 663,000 are of school age, according to UNICEF.

Yet all the issues I have mentioned which make the problem sensitive and complex are secondary when compared to the essential priority: A clearly set policy on education. 

Last year a circular was issued opening the way for Syrian children to become enrolled in state schools or “temporary education centers,” where the Syrian curriculum is provided in Arabic. This by itself shows the cacophony. Some Syrian children will have education in Turkish, while others will have education in Arabic. There needs to be a decision on whether the education should be in Arabic, Turkish or, somehow, in both.

Sweden has one of the best examples in terms of education and integration, said Ayhan Kaya, another academic working on these issues. “If we are to take Sweden as example, success in a foreign language starts from knowing one’s own mother tongue well,” said Kaya. The academic from Bilgi University recalled that thousands have graduated from İmam Hatip (vocational religious) schools and as these graduates know Arabic, perhaps the government should aim at employing them in the education of Syrian refugees in their mother tongue. But educating one group in their mother tongue will then fuel debates over education in Kurdish or the languages of other communities like Chechens who are not recognized as minorities.

Metin Çorabatır, the head of an Ankara-based research center on asylum and migration, said a formula needs to be found whereby Syrians would be integrated into Turkish schools without neglecting the fact they should not forget their mother tongue.

Yet despite the circular, many Syrians could not get enrolled in Turkish schools due to the language barrier or because they lacked the means. Or, because some school directors create certain obstacles. According to UNICEF’s data from last September, 60 percent of Syrian kids do not have access to education.

When talking about the gist of the problem I had mentioned the lack of a clearly devised policy. Actually, linked to that is the problem about shaping that policy. The government needs to talk to all stakeholders. First of all, it needs to listen to the Syrians. For that the government needs to open and facilitate the ways for Syrians to get their voices heard. Is it easy for Syrians to set up their own associations? I doubt it.

Additionally the government needs to talk to the relevant local and international NGOs. Is this kind of dialogue taking place? The answer I got from NGOs was: “It has started, but it is on a limited scale.”

The government also needs to finalize its internal organizational scheme. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu had appointed Mürteza Yetiş as an advisor on refugee issues. He has been working for some time on the issue. Yet his name does not appear on the list of advisors. Will someone else be appointed and will everything start from scrap? 

There are also rumors there is a conflict of authority and a problematic division of labor between the Disaster and Emergency Authority (AFAD), which answers to the prime minister, and the Directorate General of Migration Management, which operates within the Interior Ministry. 

But hasn’t the time come to transfer the Syrian refugee issue to the latter, since the former is for dealing with short-term crises, as its name indicates? Wouldn’t keeping the AFAD as the top responsible state organ for Syrian refugees reflect an understanding on the part of the state that it still sees the Syrian refugees as a temporary issue?