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Yazidi students abandon Arabic script with eye toward Europe

Yazidi refugees in Turkey are struggling to restart their children’s education, and many are now learning the Latin alphabet with the hope of one day starting new lives in Europe.

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey — In a tent city outside Diyarbakir, the largest city of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast, efforts are underway to provide an education to the children of Yazidi refugees from neighboring Iraq. In one novelty for Yazidi children, they are now learning the Latin script, as many Yazidis are reluctant to return home and hope to make it to Europe.

The classes, led by Yazidi teachers, include also English, mathematics, Kurdish and other subjects. The makeshift school, assisted by local and foreign nongovernmental organizations, became operational earlier this year in a bid to jumpstart education services for Yazidi children, a year after the Islamic State’s bloody onslaught on Sinjar sparked their dramatic exodus.

The school program in the camp, which shelters about 4,000 refugees, started with classes teaching the Latin alphabet, a major novelty for Yazidi students, who had so far used the Arabic script. Then, classes in English as well as in math, Kurdish and social sciences followed, again using the Latin script. The Yazidis of Sinjar, a distinct community in the Kurdish fold, speak the Kurmanji dialect of the Kurdish language, just like Turkey’s Kurds, who use the Latin script. Similar programs have been introduced in several other Yazidi refugee camps in Turkey’s southeast.

At first, textbooks and other educational tools were sorely lacking in the camp schools. The Istanbul-based Anatolia Culture Foundation stepped in, backed by the Chrest Foundation, a private US foundation that supports civil society projects in Turkey. As a result of their joint effort, 24,000 textbooks were printed and distributed to the camps.

Yet, many difficulties and shortcomings persist. At a recent meeting in Diyarbakir, the volunteer Yazidi teachers came together to share experiences, discuss needs and explore solutions.

One of them, Haji Abdullah, who teaches in a camp in Sirnak, stressed the need for psychological support for the Yazidis. “We opened the schools to help children recover psychologically and adapt anew to social life. … We have shortcomings such as blackboards and computers. Most recently we’ve launched English-language classes as well. Schools should be opened in all camps,” Abdullah told Al-Monitor.

“Using the Iraqi system would have been better, but if not, we are ready to go ahead like this. We’d like to offer also some psychology education because people are not well psychologically. They need to relax,” he added.

Daxil Seydo, a volunteer teacher in the camp in Siirt, said they were also shifting to the Latin script, though teaching in the Arabic one would have been easier. “Despite all shortcomings, we’ve kept the classes going. I’m the only teacher [in the camp], and we need support to carry on. We need textbooks, stationery and computers,” he told Al-Monitor. “We are also planning to start teaching in the Latin script. The Arabic one would have been fine. We would have preferred the Iraqi system, but this doesn’t seem possible now.”

Derya Bozarslan, the project coordinator of the Anatolia Culture Foundation, stressed that education remains a priority in rehabilitation efforts for the refugee children. “The resumption of education emerged as the most pressing issue in our preliminary surveys to assess the needs of Yazidi children. The first thing to do was to provide the lacking educational tools. A total of 24,000 textbooks were printed and distributed to all camps,” she told Al-Monitor.

“Then, we thought the volunteer Yazidi teachers would benefit from coming together to share their experiences, and we organized the workshop. The Yazidis take care of their education themselves. Each camp has set up an education system of its own. Some have kept the education system they had in Sinjar, and others have moved on,” she said.

Despite the efforts of volunteers and civic groups, the Yazidi refugees in Turkey, which number about 20,000, remain under significant strain, facing not only a struggle for basic sustenance, but also a volatile political and social environment that adds to their sense of insecurity. Though ethnically tied to the Kurds, the Yazidis have a distinct faith, for which they are ostracized and often stigmatized as “devil worshippers.” Kurdish-run local administrations and Kurdish civic groups in Turkey have strongly embraced the Yazidi refugees, but the mainly Sunni faith of local populations is a factor that amplifies their anxiety.

Metin Corabatir, a former veteran of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Turkey and now the head of the Center for Asylum and Immigration Studies, observed a prevailing aspiration among Yazidis to move on to Europe. Hence, he stressed, young people are willing to learn the Latin script and the English language.

Based on his observations in the field, Corabatir said efforts in the education realm remained “very weak and insufficient” along with shortcomings in “almost all needs” the Yazidi refugees have.

“The Kurdish political establishment is putting an emphasis on the Kurdish language and trying to highlight their Kurdish identity. The main issue is who they stay with. Ethnically, Kurds would be most comfortable with Kurds, but Kurds here are predominantly Sunni, which is a cause of anxiety for the Yazidis. They don’t want to stay in Turkey; they don’t want to go back to Sinjar. It seems Sinjar is over for them,” Corabatir told Al-Monitor.

“In my opinion, they should be accommodated in bigger cities where they can blend in more easily. They are traumatized people and feel uneasy in conservative areas,” he said. “They are keen on the Latin script and want to learn English. They aspire to build new lives in places where they will not face oppression because of their faith. Thus, language is important. I’ve spoken to teenagers who speak relatively good English. They seem inclined not to return to their homeland.”

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