Middle East

In school on border, Turkey’s challenges as EU gatekeeper are clear

Syrian refugees, who fled their home in Idlib due to a government airstrike, look out of a vehicle's window just after crossing the border from Syria to Turkey, in Cilvegozu, Turkey, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

SURUC, Turkey: So remote are their hopes of returning home that even teachers in the schools for refugees in Turkey quit to go to Europe.

“Two teachers left from our school, but from another school five teachers went,” said Ahmet Shahine, a 35-year old with graying hair who teaches Arabic at a refugee school set up within a primary school in the border town of Suruc.

As Ankara and Brussels hash out a deal to stem the flow of Syrians to Europe, the factors which drive them beyond their first safe haven show how difficult that task will be.

The Suruc school, run by charity Concern Worldwide and financed by the European Commission’s humanitarian arm, caters to a few hundred children and their teachers who fled last year’s ISIS siege of Ain al-Arab, a town known in Kurdish as Kobani over the border in Syria.

The departure of the teachers highlights how billions of dollars spent on 2.2 million refugees in Turkey have not succeeded in dissuading many from trying to make a better future in Europe.

Shahine and his Syrian colleagues are paid $220 a month, technically referred to as an “incentive” rather than a salary because they are not allowed to register as formal workers. The amount is well-below Turkey’s $340 minimum wage.

Emergency aid including basics like rice and sugar, provided by international donors when those who fled Ain al-Arab first crossed the border, stopped some six months ago, the teachers say. Now it is even harder for the families whose children attend classes to make ends meet.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Istanbul Sunday to discuss an EU “action plan” agreed Thursday involving a possible 3 billion euros in aid ($3.4 billion).

She said Europe’s efforts to filter and process the biggest mass movement of people since World War II would not work without the cooperation of Turkey, through which the vast majority pass.

But many refugees, who have shunned state-run camps, struggle to find stable incomes in impoverished parts of the country, where locals live scarcely better than them and do not think they should get special treatment.

In one telling statistic, Turkey’s 26 refugee camps, where food, shelter and education are provided, can host 330,000 people but house only 274,000 at the moment.

In the school in Suruc, girls make up the bulk of the classrooms. Many of the boys have to work to help support their parents, who left everything behind as they fled Ain al-Arab and the surrounding villages.

Shyar, 11, works at a white goods repair shop in the mornings and evenings, attending the school just for a few hours in the afternoon. He also works at the weekends.

“I love my job and I love this school as well. But I am too tired to do homework,” he says, fiddling shyly with his hands, as his sister and her friends giggle in the background.

He wants to be a pharmacist when he grows up.

Some 60-70,000 Syrian children in the Turkish province of Sanliurfa, which includes Suruc, are outside the education system, more than are in school, according to Omer Polat, deputy director of the local education authority.

He said the model used in the Suruc school and others like it was not sustainable. New school buildings were needed, as well as a legal framework to hire teachers and allow them to benefit from full employee rights.

“Turkish host communities have shared everything since the beginning, but it’s been four years ... in the long term there have to be other solutions,” he told Reuters.

Russia’s military intervention in Syria risks prolonging the war, Turkey’s leaders have warned, forecasting a new wave of migration with which they will struggle to cope, and which will ultimately press on Europe’s borders.

Ankara has lobbied the United States and other allies in vain to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria where the displaced can shelter, preventing them crossing into Turkey. As Europe turns to Turkey for help, it is an idea Ankara is pushing again.

“If we are late on this, Europe could face a refugee and security crisis unlike any it has experienced, and a new Afghanistan will emerge at one end of the Mediterranean,” Omer Celik, spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK Party, said Friday.

Creating a zone within Syria safe enough to shelter displaced civilians would mean clearing it of ISIS and other groups and securing it militarily. The fate of Ain al-Arab highlights how big that challenge would be.

A year after the ISIS assault began, turning Ain al-Arab into a symbol of Kurdish resistance, hopes that it could quickly be rebuilt have been dashed. Kurdish-led forces, helped by coalition airstrikes, pushed the Islamist radical group out of the town in January, but civilians have been slow to return. And with good reason.

The local administration says that while some 180,000 people have gone back, 61 have been killed and more than 600 wounded by mines. A fresh assault by ISIS in June killed at least 145 people and prompted aid agencies to leave.

A few of the hardiest have since returned, including two organizations specialized in land mine clearance. But it is unclear how long the cleanup will take.

“The attacks [in June] uncovered a lot of weak points in security,” said Idris Nassan, a Ain al-Arab official, although he added that steps including the establishment of a civilian force to help protect the town had since been taken.

Cihan Halet, 25, a third-grade teacher at the refugee school in Suruc, said Ain al-Arab was simply too unstable for her two sisters, elderly father and sick mother to return.

“Everything is destroyed. There are no jobs, we don’t have anything,” she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2015, on page 6.

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