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Syrian Refugee Students in Turkey Need Language and Psychosocial Help, Studies Find

Syrian researchers in Turkey have conducted studies that show that Syrian refugee students in Turkey face difficulties in integrating because they cannot speak Turkish.

Five years ago, Turkey shut down Syrian schools in refugee camps on its territory, forcing students to enroll in Turkish schools. This caused problems like the language gap, which led many refugees to drop out, the studies’ authors say.

The studies also revealed that Turkish schoolteachers had not received training on dealing with students from different cultural backgrounds or those affected by war.

The Role of Language in Integration

One case study involved a school in Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the Syrian border that has received a large number of refugees. The study, led by Iman Sarmini, a lecturer at Gaziantep University who holds a Ph.D. in psychology from Damascus University, examined the role of language in the integration of Syrian students in Turkish schools.

The study focused on the strategies Turkish teachers and the government were using to help refugee students adapt. It found that most Turkish teachers have a problem communicating with refugee students because of the language barrier. Teachers also had difficulties evaluating Syrian students’ achievement because of their lack of experience in dealing with psychological trauma.

“Providing language learning is the first step to create a dialogue with the parties concerned, since most of the Syrian families cannot cover the tuition fees of teaching their sons Turkish.”

Iman Sarmini
Lead author of a study of Syrian refugee children in Turkey

Sarmini said that teachers “used body language to communicate with students, and sometimes asked students who speak Turkish to translate for their colleagues and to test their colleagues’ educational level.”

If the Turkish government provides support programmes, the study recommends improving Syrian students’ proficiency in Turkish for one or two years before enrolling them in schools. It also recommends that the number of Syrian students should not exceed 20 percent of the total enrollment in any school.

The study also recommends motivating Turkish teachers to interact more with their Syrian students. It suggests holding joint activities between Syrian and Turkish families, to help integrate Syrian refugees into Turkish society and help Syrian mothers find jobs.

Refugees’ Psychological Problems 

Early in the war that has ravaged Syria for nearly 11 years, Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees and allowed them to  establish private schools. But as the conflict continued and refugee numbers grew, Ankara decided to integrate refugee students into Turkish public schools.

To understand the effects of this transition on Syrian students, Rida Anis, an assistant professor of English at Hassan Kalyoncu University, in Gaziantep, and colleagues conducted a study of the students’ psychosocial needs. The study involved 23 interviews with students of both sexes, parents, teachers, and school administrators.

Anis told Al-Fanar Media that Syrians form 22 percent of the population of Gaziantep but do not have the financial resources available to Turks. “The shift of Syrian students to public schools was catastrophic,” she said.

“There are different aspects to the problem for students and their families. The main ones are the psychological and social impact of being ignored, rejected, bullied, or discriminated against at schools. This has increased the dropout rates among males.”

She added: “Students do not feel welcome by their colleagues, and sometimes even by their teachers. This has increased the dropout rates among male students because they are able to find work more easily than girls. Girls, however, prefer to continue their education since the alternative is early marriage.” (See a related article, “Pandemic Will Force Thousands of Refugee Girls to Become Brides Instead of Students”.)

“Students do not feel welcome by their colleagues, and sometimes even by their teachers. This has increased the dropout rates of male students because they can find work more easily than girls. Girls, however, prefer to continue their education since the alternative is early marriage.”

Rida Anis
Lead author of a study of refugee students’ psychosocial needs

The United Nations has supported evening Turkish lessons for Syrian students. But that assistance could not overcome the knowledge gap of refugee students who had been out of school for a long time.

The language barrier also stopped Syrian parents from attending school meetings because of the difficulty of communicating with school administrators.

The study recommends that local authorities fund teachers who are culturally aware of the refugee student community, have an introductory period at the beginning of every academic year to help students make up for what they have missed, and provide staff trained in special needs to treat the psychological effects of being a refugee.

Ann Phoenix, a professor of psychosocial studies at University College London, said there could be no integration without social interaction between teachers, students and parents.

“The studies raised major problems that should be dealt with through the actual educational system rather than a new system,” she said. “Integration means assimilation of the new students into the existing system, and not creating a new system that is unequal with the old. This is an issue that should be addressed.”

Phoenix also wondered who would design language programmes. “If Turkish teachers are not informed of what they have to do, in order to accommodate refugee students in schools, it will be difficult and complicated,” she said.

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Sarmini told Al-Fanar Media that “providing language learning is the first step to create a dialogue with the parties concerned, since most of the Syrian families cannot cover the tuition fees of teaching their sons Turkish.”

She concluded: “Firstly, these children need psychological care, then equal opportunities to learn. At the moment such things are not available, except for the financially privileged.”

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By: Tarek Abd El-Galil

Tarek is an Egyptian journalist. He works as a deputy manager for the correspondents section at Tahrir newspaper and as a correspondent at correspondents.org and Al-Hayat TV. Tarek has a BA in journalism.
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