At the entrance to the five-story white building a sign reads: "Thank you, Turkey." This is only one of the schools the Syrian Education Association operates in Antakya. It is called “Recep Tayyip Erdogan School." At the entrance they fly Turkish and Syrian flags. Approximately 800 girls and 650 boys attend this school.
A revised Syrian curriculum was approved by the Turkish government last year and is now in use. Sections dealing with [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad were replaced by Ottoman history. They also offer science, social sciences, mathematics and Turkish language classes. On the walls there are slogans praising “Damascus Freedom Army.”
Thirty-two schools in Reyhanli
The Recep Tayyip Erdogan School is one of seven schools Syrian philanthropist Mustafa Sakir has set up in Hatay. Sakir, who represents the Syrian Education Association in Hatay and who is also the general manager of the Beshayir Education Institution, says these schools will enable Syrian children to think like Turkish children.
There are many more independent schools for Syrian students; 32 schools operate in Reyhanli alone. Local people say some of the schools are managed by the opposition and even by al-Qaeda. We learn that these schools are not legal, but operate openly. Some of them offer madrassa [Muslim theological school] education. They have sheikhs lecturing.
There are also many schools operated by religious-based associations and foundations offering education under the camouflage of “courses.” One of them belongs to Humanitarian Support and Charity Association. The principal of the school, which operates from a Reyhanli apartment building, is Salih Ozdemir, who is also the chairman of the association.
He says they offer education to 100 children from first to fourth grade. If it weren’t for such institutions, he says the children would be in the streets open to abuse.
Closed on Fridays
When we noted that the school was open on Saturday, we are told that Friday is their weekly holiday.
Who pays for these schools? He explains, "We have a bank account for the association. Donations are made to that account. We have two schools in Reyhanli. We pay for school transport services.”
Principal Ozdemir says he doesn’t believe in Europe and the UN. “Only Muslim blood is shed in the world,” he says. When it comes to politics, he says there is a Zionist scheme against the government. It was the Jews who brought the end of the Ottoman Empire, he adds.
I ask him, "Never heard of that before. Who brought the end of the Ottomans?"
His perspective of anti-semitism, Western phobia and the conviction that “only Muslims are friends of Muslims” is widespread.
Syrian children have resumed their education after a 2½ year lapse. Nearly 80,000 Syrian children were provided with school supplies by the UN.
Not every child can benefit from this opportunity. Education and school supplies are free, but they have to pay for transport. Many of them can’t afford to pay the 200 Turkish lira [$87] a month for transport.
In Antakya’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan School, classrooms are spotlessly clean. Three children share a desk. They are now adding a floor to the building to take in more students.
The principal is not happy: “I get 500 Turkish lira [$218] per month as salary, but my rent is 500 Turkish lira. I'm still grateful. I have five children. Some stayed in Syria. All I want is to bring the family together."
Teachers are Syrians who are paid about 200 Turkish Lira [a month]. Girls study in the mornings, boys come in at noon. All the 8- and 9-year-old girls cover their heads.
Principal Ozdemir, who was a theology teacher in Damascus, says they assist only orphans. These are the children of men killed fighting for the opposition. The association's Facebook page says the association was formed in Turkey to help orphans and the poor both inside and outside of Syria.
Resembles Afghan crisis
The Association to Support Life is one of the rare Turkish nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] that is trying to assist Syrian refugees with their needs and rights. We spoke with Sema Genel Karaosmanoglu who is the president of the association that operates in Urfa and Hatay.
Milliyet: What is your criteria for assistance?
Karaosmanoglu: We don’t discriminate based on religion, language, race, gender or age. Accountability is very important in humanitarian assistance. We don’t receive individual donations. We work on a project basis, but the legal framework and the law pertaining to donations limit NGOs.
Milliyet: We noted that mostly religious charities are active with the refugees.
Karaosmanoglu: Such associations prefer to help people close to themselves. But in the international system, assistance is distributed by NGOs who respect the UN and universal human rights. Some states in the Middle East don’t believe in this system. They say, "If we are to help Syria, then we make the rules."
Milliyet: Nobody questions them?
Karaosmanoglu: When you are a part of the international assistance system accountability is paramount. Funds coming from the Gulf might not be subject [to much scrutiny]. The same goes for donations from Turkey, too. The state needs to pay more attention to accountability. Each humanitarian agency has its own values and policies.
Turkey has become the fourth largest donor of the world because of the assistance to Syrian refugees. $750 million was spent on infrastructure and camps. The state is spending $50 million to $60 million a month. It also provides health and educational support outside the camps. We don’t know [exactly] how much is spent inside or outside camps.
Milliyet: We are told that standards are high in the camps.
Karaosmanoglu: Turkey has been very successful in setting up and operating camps. But humanitarian assistance goes beyond that. The UN says Turkey is providing five-star refugee service. But you can also argue whether each family needs a refrigerator and a TV.
Milliyet: Isn’t it risky to have the camps so close to the border?
Karaosmanoglu: This is not seen in any place in the world. They can be attacked at any moment. There is no buffer zone, there isn’t a no-fly zone. Turkey opens the border crossings from time to time. People pile up on the other side. New makeshift camps are cropping up full of people waiting to cross to Turkey. There are 25 such camps under serious risks.
Milliyet: What about the ones who live outside the camps?
Karaosmanoglu: Turkey is expecting Syrian refugees to reach 1.5 million in 2014. This question will continue for another 10 years. Those who were thinking of going back when the fighting stops have given up.
Milliyet: How are children affected by the war?
Karaosmanoglu: According to a UN study, 60% of families in Syria are affected by violence and clashes. Moreover, 23% of families have children who are detained either by the opposition or Assad. Then you have children soldiers. In Syria, 56% of the schools are nonoperational. You have children being used to make money by smuggling.
Milliyet: What about young girls?
Karaosmanoglu: Early marriage is widespread, especially with Free Syrian Army soldiers. They are religious marriages. There are girls who came to the camp when they were 12 years old and had two babies in two years. There is no support to cope with violence against women. There is so much to do, but you can’t deal with it all.
Milliyet: What is the Social Policies Ministry doing?
Karaosmanoglu: I didn’t hear of anything. We need more social service experts in the camps. There are things UNICEF and UNFPA can do. They are all sitting in Ankara waiting for permission. Look, this is a disaster. The state may not be able to deal with everything. We are expecting it to call on local and international mechanisms. They say, “Abused women can go to the police to seek shelter.” But if the Turkish women can’t do that, how can the Syrian women do it?
Milliyet: How is the crisis going to affect us in the long term?
Karaosmanoglu: The refugee problem that arose from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not been solved for  years. The same can happen here. It is looking more and more like Pakistan-Afghanistan. Participation of extreme Islamists in the clashes create anxiety if they are going to put up something like the Taliban. The radicals have threatened that there might be bombs going off in Ankara and Istanbul if Turkey closes its borders.
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