By Kate Moran
It has been a little over a month since the fifth anniversary of the start of the Syrian civil war. Since March 2011, it’s estimated that over one million Syrians have sought asylum in Turkey. Most of them were part of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have streamed across Syria’s northern border with the country, inundating once-sleepy Turkish towns like Reyhanli. Refugee camps like Suruç, Turkey’s largest, with 35,000 residents, are bursting at the seams. More than half of Syrian refugees worldwide are under the age of 18, and thus many of Turkey’s Syrian refugee population are of school age. According to NPR, the education crisis is fueling an epidemic of early marriage, child labor and poor prospects.
Syrians are now a majority in some border towns, like Reyhanli. Although the influx of refugees into Turkey has caused a significant degree of nationalist backlash, some locals are working to bring the country’s burgeoning Syrian population into the greater social fold. Marginalization, an issue faced by refugees everywhere, is especially prominent in Turkey, where a history of cultural heterogeneity and targeted nationalism has pervaded the public and political spheres for more than a century. But marginalization can be dangerous, not just for the marginalized, but also for those who perpetuate it. Like Arab countries in the region, such as Egypt, where high youth unemployment and low educational prospects have fueled social unrest, Turkey will soon have to contend with similar issues.
Refugees left to languish without education or mobility are a threat to both Turkey’s and the region’s stability. Youth unemployment is one of the most pressing threats facing the Middle East today. Unchecked, it has the potential to perpetuate regional instability, augment militant groups’ influence, and further entrench the Middle East in its vicious cycle of economic dysfunction. Rising youth populations makes finding a solution for the region’s economic woes even more critical. Without a sustainable educational model, however, economic prospects will only worsen.
To help close the educational gap, a prominent Turkish educator, Enver Yucel, has donated $10 million to establish an accredited university system where Syrians can take coursework in Arabic, English, and Turkish. Yucel believes that breaking the cycle of exploitation, marginalization, and social inequity begins with education. Investing in refugees’ education, Yucel believes, is an investment in Turkey’s future. It will equip them will the tools necessary to be fully integrated into the social and economic fabric of the country.
180,000 child refugees in Turkey receive school supplies through UNICEF’s No Lost Generation (NLG) initiative, which promotes non-discriminatory access to quality and relevant formal and non-formal education for both refugee and vulnerable host community children. However, the Turkish university system remains largely inaccessible to young Syrians, many of whom were college-bound before the outbreak of the war. Though a significant percentage of Syrian youth are educated, language barriers prevent most of them from pursuing higher education in Turkey, which would in turn, increase their job prospects.
Like Palestinians in Jordan, Syrians in Turkey have irrevocably changed the social, linguistic, and political fabric of the country. Whether or not Turkey wants them there, many are there to stay. Even under the best circumstances, Syria will take years to recover from the conflict, and prospects for the country’s displaced youth will remain low. Because of this, many Syrians will seek to cultivate new lives for themselves in Turkey. Generations will be born and come of age in a new place, facing the challenge of conflicted identities. They will be both Syrian and Turkish, but perhaps neither fully one nor the other.
Educational initiatives like Enver Yucel’s aren’t just humanitarian; they’re nationalist. Although many Turks resent Syrians for putting undue economic pressure on the government to support them, and for taking jobs away from locals (a common complaint in any society with large refugee/immigrant populations), the full social and economic integration of the Syrian refugees is ultimately critical to Turkey’s well-being and stability. Without such integration, the Eurasian country that has long been perceived as an island of calm in a region of chaos may descend into similar patterns of sectarian violence, religious conflict, and political dysfunction experienced by the rest of the Middle East.