Challenging Stereotypes with Syrian Refugee Children in Turkey
Dick Simon responds to the question he was asked by Syrian refugee children in Turkey — “Why does everyone hate Syrians?”
In April 2015, the Karam Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization, launched its fifth Innovative Education mission for displaced Syrian children and youth. Karam’s team of more than 40 international mentors worked with upward of 400 Syrian students from four schools in grades 1–12, leading workshops that included entrepreneurship, arts, language, sports and yoga and providing full dental/vision clinics and screenings.
The following is a reflection written by Dick Simon, who recently visited Syrian refugee children in schools in Turkey. “Why does the world hate Syrians?” they asked him.
It is part of a series of posts about the Karam Foundation mission, told in the words of its mentors. These offer a glimpse of what it is like to work on the Syrian border, sharing personal stories of extraordinarily talented and resilient kids and reminding us that Syrian children are more than the world knows, more than the world lets them be. They are #NotInvisible.
The Syrian conflict has created the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime. Yet in the midst of despair and destruction there is hope for a brighter future. This series is dedicated to our unwavering hope in the next generation of Syrian kids. We hope the stories will inspire you to action.
These challenging words were put to me by Syrian refugee students in Reyhanli, Turkey, last April. I was there as a mentor with the Karam Foundation’s Innovative Education programs at the Jeel and Salam Schools in this Turkish town right on the Syrian border. The question was not a new one. I had heard variants many times from many people who struggled to survive in the midst of conflict. But coming from these innocent children, who had experienced tragic loss and witnessed terrible violence, it forced me to reflect deeply on this regional crisis that has grown over the last four years to become the worst humanitarian crisis of our lifetime.
There are three separate and important issues regarding the Syrian conflict: political, military and humanitarian. The first two issues have consumed international energies for years now, but political confusion and gridlocked regional interests cannot be allowed to take our attention away from the humanitarian crisis — and especially not from the children.
The sheer numbers are staggering. More than 230,000 Syrians have been killed since the conflict began in 2011. Syrians now represent the largest group of refugees in the world. Even starker, more than half of all Syrians who used to live in Syria pre-conflict are now refugees, either internally displaced (7.6 million) or in neighboring countries (more than 4 million). Neighboring countries host most of these refugees: 2 million in Turkey; 1.2 million in Lebanon; 650,000 in Jordan; 250,000 in Iraq; and 135,000 in Egypt. By contrast, the United States has admitted fewer than 1,000 Syrian refugees.
These host countries are struggling to manage the thousands of Syrians who have fled seeking refuge from the violence. Jordan and Lebanon’s economies are stretched thin and strained. Turkey has accepted the largest number of Syrians and has spent more than $5.5 billion working with the refugee population.
Urban refugees fill border towns like Reyhanli and Kilis, which have tripled in population over the past three years. And large cities like Beirut, Amman and Istanbul are crowded with hundreds of thousands of Syrians, many of whom have turned to begging in desperation.
The official refugee camps such as Za’atari in Jordan, with 90,000 residents, are like cities not camps. Za’atari is the third largest city in the country. Even with the assistance of large international agencies such as UNHCR, these camps have become a massive burden on host countries. The camps, which were intended and designed to be short-term solutions have, after three long years, become a permanent home to masses of Syrian refugees who live there while suffering from the lack of basic necessities. While in Za’atari, I met a Cisco-certified engineer from Damascus, who lived in the camp and had been unable to get any work for more than 18 months. He was finally hired by an NGO to teach computer science classes in the camp for $1.50 an hour. When I told him I have friends who would love to hire him for 10 times more, he expressed with concern that he could be deported back to Syria if caught working illegally. (Syrians are not allowed to work in Jordan except in special situations.) The risk was too high.
Over and over we witnessed these kinds of stories: proud people with skills and determination facing impossible circumstances. There are 11.6 million Syrian stories. Last April, I witnessed more of them in southern Turkey.
The Jeel School has 300 students enrolled in grades 1–6. The Salam School is home to almost 2,000 students in grades 1–12. The Salam School, located in a renovated Turkish farmhouse is so overcrowded that it is forced to run five sessions a day, with students only receiving 2.5 hours of instruction daily. In November 2014, I participated in building the Karam Computer Lab at the Salam School. This lab is used every day by the Salam School students who learn technology and entrepreneurial skills. Both schools, like many of the Syrian refugee schools in Turkey, have long waiting lists. Still, the quality of education offered to the refugees lucky enough to attend school is not sufficient to build solid futures.
I stood in the classroom of ninth-grade Syrian boys, ready to teach my specialty class based on my TEDx talk on the most dangerous four-letter word in the English language: THEM. I began slowly, “In America, we may think of you, as a group, as THEM: far away, not like us, not people we can or really want to understand. And you may think of us Americans as THEM. And I came here from Boston to tell you that this is not true.” I explained how the exclusive term THEM creates “the other,” stereotypes, distance and apathy. When we think of others as THEM, true empathy becomes impossible.
They listened politely. And then they started asking questions. Tough questions. Although Karam Foundation’s programs have a strict no-religion/no-politics policy, my topic stirred something in the students.
Why is the regime’s use of chemical weapons not considered terrorism?
Are ISIS beheadings worse than dropping chemical weapons and barrel bombs slaughtering thousands of your own people?
Why does the kidnapping of three nuns in Maloula receive international media focus while no one cares about the slaughter of more than 200,000 people, including tens of thousands of women and children?
One handsome boy in the front row, Ali, dressed in a pressed white shirt and jeans, looked at me directly while asking, “How can you tell me there is no THEM? I watched THEM hang my uncle from a tree, cutting him with a knife until he bled to death. If America wanted to do something, they would have done it already. Why does everyone hate us?” He looked down at his desk, hiding his tears.
With difficulty, I explained I have no answer to their valid questions. My only suggestion was what I’ve seen work across the world: education can change everything. I urged them to try to conquer the battles they were able to control: like learning Turkish and English, like sticking together and supporting each other through this hardship they were experiencing, and taking advantage of every education program they could in order to better their lives and build their future. I encouraged them to have hope — in themselves.
The bell rang and the boys filed into the hallway. I had been holding it together during the class, but afterwards Kinda Hibrawi, Karam’s director of education, and I melted, sobbing, into a pool of tears. All of it was unfair and unjust.
My work revolves around teaching different groups of people to kNOw THEM; that knowing the other eliminates apathy and encourages empathy. I believe we, as an international community, have failed at knowing Syrians. We have failed to understand that these children are much like our children.
We must engage in this crisis — not just because it is moral, humane and right. We must understand that we can pay now to help the Syrians rebuild their lives or pay 100 times more later, as thousands of isolated, abandoned, desperate youth fall prey to extremist recruiters, offering identity and community, a sense of purpose and financial support. The United States and other wealthy countries can and must offer more financial support for refugee education and assistance.
I reassured the students that we do not hate Syrians. But the world’s collective inaction is sending the opposite message. We must all work harder to change that message, before it’s too late for us and for the kids.
Postscript: After my class, Ali gathered his friends and created a small group focused on achieving goals such as learning Turkish and using technology to find opportunities beyond Reyhanli. At the boys’ request, I had my TEDx Talk translated into Arabic. As a result of our encounter that day with Ali and his friends, the Karam team decided that the next Leadership Mission, in November, will take place in Ali’s school, Ruwwad. They, and we, are looking forward to building a better future together.