Director-General meets Syrian refugees in Gaziantep

Following the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova visited facilities established to meet the needs of some 300,000 Syrian refugees in the southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep, on 24 May.

The cities of Aleppo in Syria and Gaziantep are twinned, but this relationship has taken on a stark new reality since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. 

Five years ago, residents of Gaziantep recall crossing the border to spend weekends in Aleppo some 100 kilometers away.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2012, the population of Gaziantep has increased by over 20 percent. The majority of its 300,000 refugees are under age 17, making this one of the largest concentrations of young people in a country that is already hosting the world’s biggest refugee population of 3 million.

Mayor Fatma Sahin says the challenges to her city are varied, from housing shortages, rising rents, drought, which aggravates water availability, pressures on health systems and the need for more classrooms and teachers. Renowned for its cultural heritage and culinary traditions (a UNESCO Creative City for Gastronomy), Gaziantep has also seen a decline in tourism income, putting additional pressures on the community.

She described initiatives to build new cities, deploy teachers, introduce language courses and promote integration. A former minister of family and social policy, she explained that hotlines had been set up in the city for the prevention of domestic violence, early marriage and to encourage young girls to stay in school.

The Director-General gained direct insight into these efforts with a visit to the Nizip Container City, approximately 40 kilometers east of Gaziantep.  Stretching behind fences of barbed wire over a barren area of 145,000 km2, the 900 containers aligned in a geometric grid are home to some 50,000 refugees. It is one of the seven container camps in Turkey, along with 19 tent camps. 

“The camp is run like a city, providing services such as education and health care, skills training, social activities, sports, psycho-social support and security," explained the director of the camp.

The Director-General viewed the computer room, library, sewing class and other facilities, and met with mothers and their young children who have lived in Nizip for several years. 

"Mindsets and expectations have changed," said the Director. "At first, people thought they would be going back to their country. Now they are more ready to receive education." 

The Nizip camp offers preschool, primary and secondary level education to over 2,000 students who follow the Syrian curriculum. Some 115 teachers (98 Syrian) provide classes in Arabic, with Turkish and English taught as foreign languages. The Turkish Ministry of Education coordinates textbook availability and curriculum with various counterparts. ‎Ankara University provides language courses in Turkish, which has enabled 40 students to pursue higher education after gaining a scholarship.

While container camps serve the most vulnerable populations, including single women, people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, the majority of refugees live in the host community - in Gaziantep.

Accompanied by Mayor Sahin, the Director-General visited the Syrian Information and Education Centre, a school run by the municipality, serving some 1400 disadvantaged Syrian students, including 400 orphans. Students here follow the Turkish curriculum. It stands opposite ‎a state school that accommodates both Turkish and Syrian students. Authorities explained that 39 schools now run a multi-shift system, and boast that 98 percent of Syrian children and youth in the city are enrolled in basic education.

Students at the Centre showed the Director-General a variety of creative handicrafts made out of recycled materials and science projects, produced as part of an extracurricular class, sharing their ambitions to become doctors, town planners, journalists and scientists.

'Learn to live together by playing together' is the slogan that inspires the Gizem Dogan Anisna life learning and recreational complex, the third facility visited by the Director-General in Gaziantep.  

“Our activities support team building through games to integrate Syrian students with their Turkish peers," explained the Centre's director. “The aim is to also pass messages on living together."

The Director-General met with young students, explaining the mission of the United Nations, and UNESCO's advocacy for education, especially for girls. 

According to the Mayor, 80% of refugees dream of returning to their country when the war ends. Meanwhile, however, the challenges remain steep. It is estimated that 663,138 Syrian refugee children between 6 and 17 years are not enrolled in formal education programmes and large numbers of youth require access to skills training. 

"I have witnessed how much solidarity, care and empathy there is on behalf of the Mayor and local people toward refugees," said the Director-General. "More than ever we need this solidarity and support for people who have undergone enormous suffering‎. At the World Humanitarian Summit, UNESCO advocated for using all means possible so that children in conflict and humanitarian crisis can go to school. What I have seen here illustrates exactly what we discussed at the Summit and deserves all our praise."

During her participation in the World Humanitarian Summit, the Director-General discussed with authorities a proposal developed by UNESCO to increase school opportunities for Syrian refugees in Turkey at primary and secondary levels, to strengthen systems, to provide capacity building for teachers, as well as technical and vocational education and training, literacy and higher education.