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Press Centre (7/2017)

Turkish class teaches a young Syrian girl how to cope with life as a refugee

Photos: © UNICEF/RICH/2017

By Donatella Lorch

Şanlıurfa, Turkey – Every morning, Dua gets up and makes breakfast for her parents and her 7 siblings and then cleans the kitchen. The 15-year-old Syrian refugee then spends much of her day at home.
“I am so bored,” she admitted. “I can’t go to a regular Turkish school because I don’t speak Turkish. But now, all I can think of is: ‘when can I go to my Turkish lesson?’”
Three times a week in the afternoon, Dua, a willowy teenager with a contagious 
smile and a delicate smudge of black kohl around her eyes, walks the narrow cobblestoned streets of Şanlıurfa, her adopted city in Turkey’s Southeast, to join a dozen classmates in an unusual school setting. With babies on their laps and toddlers chasing each other around the room, a dozen women, all Syrian refugees, some wearing headscarves and ankle-length coats, others in jeans and shirts, spend two hours learning basic Turkish grammar and forming sentences with the latest vocabulary they have learned.
“My teacher is the best,” said Dua describing Hasan Parlak, 28, a Turk who teaches morning classes in a local high school and volunteers his afternoons teaching refugees. For the first time since she fled to Turkey from Homs in 2015, Dua feels she can communicate with the world outside her small apartment. “Everyone here is so positive and we all really want to learn. Now when I go to a shop, people understand me. I am no longer invisible. I exist!”
The classes take place in a multi-purpose community center, known by the Turkish acronym ÇATOM, and administered by the Southeastern Anatolia Project (the GAP Regional Development Administration) under Turkey’s Ministry of Development. There are 44 ÇATOMs in 9 provinces that target vulnerable women and young girls living in poor neighborhoods and support them in skills and job development as well as provide them with child-care while they attend classes. More than 15,000 young girls and women participate each year in ÇATOM programs.

In 2015, with the funds from European Union, UNICEF partnered with ÇATOM in Şanlıurfa to help improve their services and extend them to Syrian refugees. Şanlıurfa, a city of 1.9 million is home to just under 420,000 Syrian refugees. Both Turkish and Syrian women attend together art, cooking and sewing workshops, organizing joint picnics and get-togethers. Their trainers are bi-lingual. Men and adolescent boys over 12 are not allowed in (with the exception of the Turkish teacher), one of the main reasons that Dua’s father allowed his daughter to attend classes. Friendships across cultures and age groups are quickly formed under the traditional vaulted limestone ceilings and thick walls that remind of a caravanserai, its central courtyard shielded by a large tree.
“Building trust is always a problem at the beginning,” said Ayse Dağlar, the ÇATOM coordinator in Şanlıurfa. “When they understand this is a safe environment, this center becomes their second address.”  Here assistance to Syrian refugees can vary from taking Turkish classes, to help in obtaining Turkish identity cards, and getting children into schools. There are also seminars on the dangers of child marriage and on basic health information for adolescent girls in addition to social and cultural activities.
On average, the women visit the center for six months to a year, as many families are forced to migrate wherever they can find employment. In 2016, 300 women benefitted from regular ÇATOM services in Şanlıurfa while about 600 women visited.

Hasan, Dua’s teacher, has been volunteering at this ÇATOM for two years, teaching 10 hours a week. Each course lasts 3 months. “Our goal is not only teaching them, because 3 months is really not enough,” he explained. “We also aim to give them hope, to help them get over the trauma of war and loss.
The only thing that really belongs to young women like Dua is their Turkish lessons.” The women proudly relate to Hasan the compliments they receive for their Turkish from shop owners and neighbors.
Dua, he says, is his fastest learner, a ball of energy who insists he ignore national holidays and teach instead. But like many others before her, she will soon drop out of Turkish lessons. Her father, who sells vegetables, has found her a 12-hour-a-day job working for a tailor.  The family needs the extra cash.
“Dua is not my first student to have to do this,” he said sadly. “She will sacrifice her future life for her family. For young girls like her, there are only two alternatives: they will work or they will get married.”
Dua talks about her new job without resentment. “Maybe, I’ll become a wife in my own home,” she says of her future. Yet the dreamer in her goes beyond the present boundaries of her world, perhaps fed by the power and independence instilled in her during Turkish class. The clock may no longer be able to turn back time.
“I want to be a doctor,” she says smiling.
Partnership for Children
UNICEF’s work with ÇATOM is funded by the European Union Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis.
UNICEF Turkey Country Office, Yukarı Dikmen Mah. Alexsander Dubçek Cd. 7/106, 06450 Çankaya/Ankara. Telephone: +90 312 454 1000 Fax: +90 312 496 1461 E-mail: ankara@unicef.org