Difficulties of schooling Syria's refugee children

Al Bashayer school Turkey would like Syrian schools in border areas to remain in the refugee camps

Syrian refugees, trying to bring some normality to their new life in Turkey, are setting up schools for their children. But this is not always with the blessing of their host, as the BBC's James Reynolds finds out.

"We are from Syria, we are from Syria," the teacher says in English to her class of 12 year olds.

The pupils squash onto benches in a small room in an old apartment building in the southern city of Antakya. One girl lingers outside the classroom, unsure if there is room for her. After a few minutes, she finds the courage to enter the classroom and everyone moves over to allow her to sit down.

The class is studying English words that begin with the letter 'y'. "What is another 'y'?" asks the teacher. "Yellow," she answers herself.

This school, called al-Bashayer, opened in September in time for the start of the Syrian school year.

More than 300 Syrian refugee children aged between six and 15 now study here.

They barely fit inside the building. The upstairs bathroom is used to store textbooks.

The school's 21 teachers used to work at schools in Syria. They work without a salary here.

Start Quote

I want my sons to have their childhood. I want them to have the kind of life they enjoyed back home in Syria ”

End Quote Ali Kamal Father of two pupils

Parents are asked to pay $20 (£12.40) a month for the school bus, but the classes themselves are free. An Islamic charity helps to provide supplies, including pink backpacks for the girls which appear to be particularly popular.

The school faces an overwhelming problem: it is unlicensed.

Shortly after it opened, the local authorities forced it to close down for several days. During this time, the teachers took the children to play games in a local park.

Psychology lessons

The Turkish government in the border province of Hatay does not want Syrians to settle in this region.

Syria has traditionally claimed Hatay as part of its own territory, which means that Turkey is very sensitive to any sizeable increase in the Syrian population here.

Al Bashayer school Pupils are arriving to be registered at Al Bashayer school all the time

The local government insists that Syrian refugee children be taught at schools set up inside official refugee camps close to the border, and has even suggested that this school moves its classes into a camp.

The Turkish foreign ministry told the BBC that existing camp schools were doing their best to provide Arabic-speaking teachers for the children. But many Syrian families do not want their children to live or learn inside the camps.

Ali Kamal sends his two sons Mohammed, 12, and eight-year-old Ibrahim to al-Bashayer. He drapes his arms over their shoulders as he speaks.

"We are in a very difficult situation," he says. "But in the refugee camp, 40km (25 miles) from here, the classes are in Turkish - not in Arabic. I want my sons to have their childhood. I want them to have the kind of life they enjoyed back home in Syria. I just want their education to continue."

Some Syrian refugee families have decided to move to other areas in southern Turkey where the authorities quietly allow Syrian schools to operate.

But al-Bashayer continues to get new pupils.

Start Quote

We've got rid of the lesson praising Assad [and] we've also added psychology classes”

End Quote Sally al-Bunni Al-Bashayer headteacher

In the morning, a father takes his two children up to the first floor office to register for classes. On the edge of the office sofa, the brother and sister sit shyly, waiting to give their names.

Sally al-Bunni, one of the school's headteachers, tells the children's father that they will be able to start classes in a week's time.

A Turkish flag hangs from one of the windows next to Ms Bunni's desk, perhaps to show government inspectors that this school means no harm to its host country.

Her aim is simple - to continue the education that Syrian children were getting in their own country.

"We follow the official Syrian curriculum," she says. "But we've got rid of the lesson praising Assad. We've also added psychology classes to deal with the children's trauma. We tell them that we will go back to Syria and rebuild it with our own hands."

Bunny hops

In the kindergarten class on the ground floor, there are 70 children.

There is not enough room on all the benches, so three kids have to sit on the floor by the wall.

One boy, in a grumpy mood, decides not to join the other children. He spends the morning standing by the door, peeking through the hinges into the classroom. The teacher asks the class to stand up.

Al Bashayer school Psychology lessons to deal with the trauma of conflict are now on the curriculum

"What number do you all look like?" she asks. "The number one," they shout happily.

Every child at this school has escaped war. Nine-year-old Bissam fled government attacks in northern Syria two months ago with his parents and brothers.

"Every day they bombed," he says, as he sits on the school's front steps.

Bissam is a Real Madrid fan and his favourite subjects are science and mathematics. Going back to school gives him the chance to work on achieving his ultimate ambition.

"I want to be a pilot," he smiles, "because I like planes and helicopters."

At playtime, the pupils run around inside the small yard. One of the volunteers teaches her class how to do bunny hops.

The children at this school have lost a country. Some have even lost family members. A normal school day becomes something to hold onto.

Additional reporting by Zeynep Erdim

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