On December 2nd, THO partnered with NYU’s Washington, D.C. campus to host a panel of experts and practitioners for a discussion on the Syrian refugee crisis and Turkey’s response. The guest speakers addressed the challenges faced by Syrian refugees in Turkey, the education and mental health of refugee children, and sustainable approaches to the refugee crisis.
The panel included NYU Steinhardt professor Dr. Selcuk Sirin; Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Vice President Dr. Basel Termanini; Migration Policy Institute research assistant Brian Salant; and Youth Deal Cooperative member Berkin Safak Sener.
The event also featured a photo exhibition by Turkish-American student and activist Sinem Oguz titled “On the Border: Syrian Women and Children.” Ms. Oguz took the photographs during a visit to Syrian refugee camps in Turkey. The trip was made possible through funding and support from Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD), the Turkey-U.S. Business Council (TAIK), and THO.
The impact of the Syrian conflict on refugee children
Currently, migration is at an all-time high worldwide, and this rate also applies to migration as a result of conflict and disaster. Currently, 65 million people have been displaced from their homes due to war and disaster, and of that number, half are children and adolescents. The majority of them are no longer receiving proper education and suffer mental health issues. According to Dr. Selcuk Sirin, whose research focuses on the challenges faced by refugee children, conflict and displacement have dire effects on children’s well-being.
For example, only 50% of Syrian children are in school currently. This statistic contrasts sharply with the state of enrollment in Syria before the civil war, which was 92%, making Syria an educational success story, especially with regard to its region.
Currently, the percentage of Syrian refugee children in Turkey who are not in school can be broken down as follows:
- 91% of preschool-age children;
- 47% of elementary school-age children;
- 67% of middle school-age children; and
- 90% of high school-age children.
Just as dire as the state of refugee children’s education is the state of their mental health and well-being. Dr. Sirin’s research shows that with regard to “exposure to trauma,” 79% of Syrian refugee children have experienced someone die in their family; this rate is higher than rates recorded during any other conflict. 30% of Syrian refugee children themselves have been kicked, shot at, or physically harmed. Due to these traumatic experiences, 45% of Syrian refugee children exhibit PTSD symptoms. 44% of refugee children exhibit symptoms of depression, while another 20% are clinically depressed, meaning their conditions are so severe as to include suicidal thoughts, insomnia, lack of appetite, and uncontrollable emotions.
For Dr. Sirin, the dire of state of refugee children’s well-being requires a sustainable, thorough response from the international community. Dr. Sirin praised the Turkish government’s efforts to improve the lives of refugees. He noted that Turkey has done a particularly good job of providing quality healthcare to Syrian refugees, which is due in part to the fact that Turkey’s overall healthcare system is low-cost and high-quality.
Regarding other international actors, Dr. Sirin commended Germany but criticized the U.S. for the low number of Syrian refugees it has accepted. Dr. Sirin said that the U.S. should be accepting four million refugees per year when compared to Germany’s one million.
Dr. Sirin emphasized that it is of utmost importance to properly address the issues being faced by refugee children, especially with regard to their education. He cautioned that an inadequate response from the international community will lead to a “lost generation” among Syrian refugees. He noted that despite the trauma that these children have experienced, they still have hope for a better tomorrow. In recognition of this optimism, Dr. Sirin and his research team are developing a Turkey-based program called Project Hope. The goal of the program is to use educational video games to teach children Turkish and English, address mental health concerns, and provide coding skills.
When asked about recent statements from the Turkish government alluding to the possibility of allowing refugees to cross into the EU if the EU does not make good on promises for visa-free travel for Turks, Dr. Sirin said that while Turkey has made great strides in its efforts to support its Syrian refugee population, the Turkish government should avoid using the refugees as a “weapon” in political disagreements with the EU.
To help refugees, stop the war
Dr. Basel Termanini, a Syrian-American born and raised in Aleppo, said that he first began organizing and sending aid to Syrians affected by the civil war in the winter of 2012. He worked hard to gather and send winter clothing and other provisions to civilians in Syria and collaborated with individuals in Turkey to ensure that containers reached their destinations.
Dr. Termanini also began participating in medical missions as part of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which is the most active medical organization on the ground in Syria. Last year, SAMS was able to treat 2.6 million people in the country.
During his medical trips to Syria, Dr. Termanin began to observe the massive need for a functioning education system. He has found that establishing schools in Syria is cheaper and more cost effective than doing so in places like Turkey and Lebanon. He commended Turkey for the high quality services and opportunities it provides to its refugee population and contrasted them with Lebanon, where refugees have to pay rent for their tents and the land they occupy.
He illustrated the example of two very bright Syrian students who were working in construction in Lebanon for $10 a day in order to survive. Dr. Termanini took them to Turkey, where they learned English and Turkish, earned top scores, and were able to continue their studies in Bosnia.
Yet even with the best support for refugee populations, Dr. Termanini emphasized that in order for Syrian civilians to be protected, the roots of the refugee crisis – not just the symptoms – must be properly addressed. Thus, in order to truly overcome the challenges faced by Syrian civilians, the Syrian civil war must be stopped in a way that protects the Syrian population.
Dr. Termanini stated that the conflict seems complex from the outside, but it is simple on the inside. It is a battle between a dictator and the Syrian people, who are striving for human rights, freedom, and democracy. He explained that now that the people have “smelled and tasted freedom,” they are willing to make sacrifices for it.
Syrian refugees contribute to their host societies but remain vulnerable
Through his research at the Migration Policy Institute, Brian Salant found that Syrian refugees can bring multiple benefits to the countries that host them. He said that due to the entrepreneurship of Syrian refugees, an estimated 4,000 business have been established in Turkey. These refugees are providing a “gateway to the Middle East” by forming business networks connecting Turkish business professionals with their counterparts in the Middle East. As a result, Turkey has seen an increase in exports to the Middle East between 2011 and 2014, which in turn has led to a rise in consumer demand.
However, Mr. Salant noted that Syrian refugees also arrive with certain vulnerabilities, such as debt or scarce financial resources. Additionally, they suffer from disrupted work and education trajectories as well as psychological trauma and other health concerns.
Turkey is striving to enroll more Syrian refugee children and youth into public schools in order to fill the education gap; in fact, the 2016/17 academic year is the first in which all Syrian students from the levels of preschool to first grade will be required to attend Turkish schools rather than schools set up specifically for Syrian refugees. Additionally, Turkey has extended healthcare services to all Temporary Protection Beneficiaries (the status covering Syrian refugees) who have a valid Foreigner Identification Number (FIN). This healthcare only applies to registered refugees and is valid only within the refugee’s province of registration. All medical costs are covered by the Ministry of Health.
Despite the progress made by these programs, barriers such as overcrowding and overburdening of providers and municipalities remain. Additionally, the language barrier continues to lessen the impact of the services provided to Syrian refugees. Mr. Salant emphasized that foreign donors have an important role to play by providing funding to keep these services open to refugees and by investing in more sustainable structures and systems for refugee support.
Cooperatives are an innovative solution to challenges faced by refugees
As a member of the Board of Directors of the Youth Deal Cooperative based in Izmir, Berkin Sener has worked to support the employment prospects of Syrian refugees in Turkey. His experiences have shown that despite the wide-ranging programs provided by the Turkish government, many Syrian refugees are still falling through the cracks and suffering from their situation.
For example, while the Turkish government provides considerable support to registered Syrian refugees, refugees that are living in a city different than they are registered are forced to use private services and facilities for necessities like healthcare because free services are not available to them. Additionally, a lack of sustainable education and employment opportunities as well as exploitation of vulnerable populations means that Syrian refugees as young as 14 are working in fields for 10 or 11 hours a day for only $10 to $13 a day.
Mr. Sener emphasized the importance of the integration and socialization of refugees in order to ensure the greatest benefits for both the refugee and Turkish communities. He noted that language education is a priority of international aid and NGOs. Education serves as one area where integration can be achieved. He said that “temporary education centers isolate children from joining primary schools” and cause marginal inter-ethnic socialization between Syrian refugees and their Turkish peers.
Mr. Sener underlined the crucial role that NGOs play in the response to the refugee crisis but said that the sustainability of this response is limited due to overreliance on donors whose funding could stop suddenly. He suggested that co-ops can be a useful tool for addressing the refugee crisis. They allow for a multi-ethnic working environment, sustainable and egalitarian capital redistribution, and a broader social base that creates greater social integration opportunities for Syrian refugees.
When asked whether officials in Turkey intentionally avoid the use of the term “assimilation” when referencing the Syrian refugee population, Mr. Salant said that there is certainly an effort to use more positive words like “harmonization” to refer to the integration of refugees into Turkish society. He noted, however, that Syrian refugees remain under “temporary beneficiary status” – a status legislated specifically with them in mind – and it is uncertain what the future of this status is and when it will end.
To the same question, Dr. Sirin emphasized the fact that out of the global Syrian refugee population, at least half will not return to Syria even when peace is achieved. This means refugee-hosting countries like Turkey must get used to the idea that Syrian refugees “are here to stay.”
In response to a question regarding a lack of global understanding of the magnitude of the refugee crisis and whether the international community is doing enough to help the Turkish government with its refugee population, Mr. Sener said that the proximity of the EU means that there is a greater awareness of the crisis in Europe versus in the U.S. Throughout their presentations, the experts emphasized the importance of sustainability and international involvement in addressing the refugee crisis and the Syrian civil war.