As families return to Aleppo, Turkish education program helps reopen hundreds of schools

More than 400 schools in the Syria’s Aleppo Governorate have been renovated in the past eight months, enabling some 152,000 children to restart their education following the country’s six-year civil war.

The humanitarian effort, launched by Turkey’s National Education Ministry following the successful conclusion of the Turkey’s Euphrates Shield Operation in late March, covers the districts of Azaz, Al-Rai, Al-Bab and Jarablus. Turkey’s Maarif Foundation has also opened two schools in Jarablus, and new schools are in the pipeline.

As the districts return to some semblance of normality following the defeat of Daesh, families have begun to return, necessitating the reopening of schools.

The ministry’s initiative includes a "compensation program" intended to help children catch up on the years of education they have missed, particularly elementary school education.

Speaking recently to Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency, the ministry's Lifelong Education Director Ali Riza Altunel said it has hired 230 teachers, all of whom are fluent in Turkish and will teach it to Syrian children in the schools.

A new textbook — “Turkce Ogreniyorum” (I am learning Turkish) — has been distributed to the schools, which teach a modified Syrian curriculum.

Although some have criticized the move as an attempt to widen Turkish influence and soft power in the region, local education officials reportedly consented to the teaching of Turkish in the schools.

Professor Basak Yavcan, who works on refugee education at TOBB University of Economics and Technology in Ankara, said the rebuilding of schools in Syria is vital if the potential threat of a lost generation is to be avoided.

“Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, over 3.4 million Syrians arrived in Turkey. Of these, more than 1 million are school-age children, but only 612,000 of them are enrolled,” Yavcan told Arab News.

“This is partly due to the initial unpreparedness of Turkey’s institutional infrastructure for this mass influx, but also due to economic difficulties which led children to drop out of school and work informally to support their families, or to get married,” she noted, adding that enrollment rates were around 20 percent at first, but now exceed 60 percent.

“Turkey now understands the importance of keeping children in education,” Yavcan explained. “As they spend more time out of school, it becomes harder to get them to return. There’s a danger of a lost generation, which can result in social marginalization.

“As a result, Turkey invests in keeping children in school (while they are displaced) so they can carry on from where they left off, regardless of where their families go afterward,” she continued.

Keeping children in school is also believed by experts to help prevent them from being drawn into radicalization and terror networks in the region.

Omar Kadkoy, a researcher on refugee integration at Ankara-based think tank TEPAV, said the program will help develop the human capital that will be central to Syria’s future.

“This initiative allows the local society to pursue a normal life that has been absent for several years,” Kadkoy told Arab News. “Instability is a key factor behind forced displacement and this is why we have over 5 million displaced Syrians in the neighboring countries. Order and security, on the other hand, are pull factors to return home.”

Kadkoy noted that a few thousand Syrians have already returned to their homes in Aleppo Governorate and have expressed their desire to stay there.

“With Turkey's soft power on the ground, the need to seek shelter elsewhere fades away,” he added.

Students began returning to schools in October and school bells can now be heard in the “de-escalation zone” in parts of Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib too.