Education

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By ZongXian Eugene Ang

Program booklet for Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices on Stage. Source: Author's own photo.

What is home? Is it just a structure, a shelter over our heads? Or can it be something more? For most of us, home is a treasure trove of trust and love. It is the site of our most cherished relationships, the place we ground our memories and our sense of self. Yet, it can also be the cradle we have always wanted to run away from; suffocating, and at times, utterly dysfunctional. Try as we might, however, home may not be a place we can easily escape from either. After all, home can be entirely divorced from geography; a state of mind that we carry even after crossing multiple borders. Perhaps, it is simply a latent sentiment we all share: similar in spirit, but different in form—wherever we come from.

I had the tremendous privilege of spending last Friday evening watching Generation (Wh)Y: Global Voices On Stagean interactive, multi-media performance based on year-long engagements and interviews between Georgetown University students and youth from all around the world, but primarily from the Middle East. Held at the Davis Performing Arts Center in Georgetown University, Generation (Wh)Y is the third of four events that constitute Myriad Voices: A Cross-Cultural Performance Festival. Through compelling performances, the festival seeks to present the varied and textured experiences of Muslim individuals and communities, humanizing them and thus rendering them all the more familiar.

Generation (Wh)Y began with a chorus of words related to the idea of home, all in different languages. The dynamic movements of the ensemble and the cascade of voices echoing throughout the intimate space of the theater evoked a certain immersive quality: home as a feeling, as a sentiment, flowed all around us. Naturally, I did not know most of the non-English words that were said, but the mystique of these foreign words that permeated through the sonic landscape only reinforced my gut instinct: not all human sentiments could, or even should, be expressed literally. After all, as some of the featured interview excerpts expressed, there is always the risk that labels and names might obscure other facets of our identities: we are not just Muslims, nor are we just someone from X country.

Following this moving exploration of the different meanings of home, the audience was split up and led to separate parts of the Performing Arts Center for three different “Encounters,” each centered on the themes of Discovery, Risk, and Laughter respectively. In “Discovery,” two live dancers were juxtaposed against the silhouettes of human figures projected onto the backdrop of the stage. As excerpts from the interviews were narrated, the shadows of the dancers swept gracefully around the talking silhouettes, simulating the ebb and flow of conversation. Indeed, dialogue is a wonderful avenue for us to discover ourselves and our place in the world. Regardless of where we are from, there will always be common ground that underlies our shared humanity.

In “Risk,” excerpts from the interviews were interspersed with poems by Palestinian and Sudanese poets. As the cast members paced around the room and recounted stories laden not only with anxieties and uncertainties, but also hopes and dreams, they truly succeeded in bringing these excerpts to life before the audience. At the center of this performance were the drapes that hung from the ceiling, symbolizing both the desire for security at our most vulnerable, as well as the upward trajectories of our aspirations. “Laughter” shifted the mood of the event to a more light-hearted one, as the audience got the chance to sample jokes from around the world. After we had an appetizing course of giggles, chuckles, and belly laughs, we ended the encounter with a heartening and lengthy burst of guffaws—a reminder that the sheer joy of a good laugh is indeed universal.

As an individual living in this diverse world, it is definitely heartening to be reminded that there are still many commonalities underpinning the human experience. We may all speak a different language, practise different customs and hold different views about the world and beyond. But that does not deny the fact that we all want a loving home to go back to everyday—to rest and recharge from a meaningful life filled with discoveries and risks, as well as a healthy dose of laughter. The journey that Generation (Wh)Y had taken us should not be confined to the theater. As we go about our daily lives, let us not forget to treat our brothers and sisters all around us with compassion, understanding, and an open mind—whether or not they share the same race or creed. We only have one world; and we are all in this together.

By Kate Moran

Syrian Kurdish refugees entering Turkey. Source: EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department (ECHO).

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.

By James Abate

Alia and Basma, both aged 12, tackle a maths question at a temporary school in northern Lebanon, set up by UNICEF and Lebanese NGO Beyond Association with the help of UK aid. Source: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development.

A formalized educational system within a nation is necessary not only to cultivate productive citizens but also to provide a structured system for children to realize how the world around them functions. The molding of children into educated adults by way of schooling is severely hindered, however, for refugees displaced by war or genocide.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described the Syrian Civil War as “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” Almost half of the causalities of the conflict are children, and millions of refugees continue to flee into neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. UNHCR reports that Lebanon, a country with a population of only around 4 million, houses 1.2 documented refugees within its borders. That number swells to an estimated 2 million when taking unregistered refugees into consideration. Within Jordan, 700,000 refugees have been granted asylum, with that number projected to increase to around 1 million by the end of 2015.

Education in the region provides refugees an indisputable opportunity for advancement far beyond mere survival. However, for the 400,000 Syrian children and young adults who are registered in Lebanon’s education system, proper education is a luxury; many of young refugees believe their dreams of attending school are a lost cause. The UN reports that, as of March, “in Lebanon, there are more school-age refugees than the entire intake of the country’s public schools” and of those refugees only 30% of them are receiving a proper education. While the Lebanese Ministry of Education has traditionally covered all costs for the various stages or cycles of education, the country is facing a massive crisis trying to accommodate this dramatic increase in enrollment.

Apart from the sheer magnitude of students now being placed into the Lebanese educational system, various linguistic, cultural, and curricular barriers continued to prevent Syrian children from receiving this necessary experience. In Syria, the curriculum for students is taught completely in Arabic, while in Lebanon many subjects are taught in French or English. Consequentially, Syrian children placed into this system face a massive language barrier. At the same time, teachers in the Lebanese schools are forced to delay curriculum to work on the basics of English or French with these students. Many Lebanese families have begun to pull their children out of the public school system in favor of private schools, despite the debilitating economic circumstances. Beyond just “soft” barriers, Syrian children have been known facing violence such as bullying and harassment within their schools. According to one Syrian mother, “her child, Mazin, was ‘humiliated and beaten’ at a Lebanese public school.”

Whether or not we blame the failing Lebanese educational system or the various NGOs and non-profits such as UNICEF and UNHCR who provide funding for refugee education, we must recognize the gravity of this lack of education for Syrian children in order to move forward. Not only does the lack of a formalized educational experience eliminates any semblance of normality or structure in a refugee’s life, but the lack of knowledge and liberal learning for Syrian youth also represents something even more detrimental to Syria’s future. In addition to being plunged into one of the worst civil wars of the past 25 years, Syria has now lost a generation. This generation will not be able to continue on to shape the post-war region and will not be able to restructure their homeland. It is indeed quite frightening to wonder about the future of this nation knowing that those who should have been the ones to lead lack the education to do so.

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