It was the last week of 2017 and there was unseasonably warm in Istanbul. While some were waiting for the weather to cool down and hoping to welcome the new year with falling snow, it meant something wholly different, and worse, for some others who live in different conditions. The Syrian students at the Turkish Red Crescent Community Center in the Sultanbeyli district of Istanbul, who are among those wanting to see the city blanketed in snow, entered the classroom with a sign on its door that said "Turkish Class." It has been nine weeks since they first started to learn Turkish in a project called "Istanbul: The City of Culture," which aims to improve Syrian refugee children's abilities in listening, writing, reading and speaking in Turkish by introducing them to the city of Istanbul and Turkish culture, done in cooperation with the Istanbul Medeniyet University Social Collaboration Research and Application Center (SOSYOPARK) and the Turkish Red Crescent Community Center.
As soon as I walked into the classroom, I felt the timid eyes turn to me, observing and trying to guess whether I was a new teacher or not. What would I lecture about? What kind of a person am I? I was an unexpected guest for them, one that could be liked or disliked in a very short time, but certainly, one that would make their day more interesting. The teacher introduced me to the class like I was a new student entering the classroom for the first time. I had the intention of being their friend even though our time was limited. They welcomed me with shy gestures, some smiled while hiding their faces with their hands in a cute tricky way. The students were from different cities in Syria, mostly Aleppo, who had fled their country during the civil war and found shelter in Turkey.
I pretended like I did not notice the eyes on me and sat in one of the empty chairs. The topic of the class was Emirgan Park, where they had a class trip the previous week, as one of the children enthusiastically said, "We went there, to that place. God, you should have seen that beautiful place with us." When their teacher asked who wanted to read the passage out loud, they all raised their hands eagerly to impress me, a newcomer, with how good they have been learning the language.
Syrian children, who had fled their country and took shelter in Turkey, enjoy Turkish lessons at the Turkish Red Crescent Community Center.
Yasir Küçükşahin, a volunteer in the project who is a research assistant from Istanbul Medeniyet University, explained that the kids are extremely eager to speak Turkish. "They really enjoy lessons here and want to do their best in learning and speaking Turkish. They kind of compete with each other to prove how good they are and want to be accepted here," he said.
While it is hard for children to make friends, especially in their early school years, it is much harder for Syrian children since they do not speak the same language as their peers in Turkey. A Turkish teacher at the community center, Gülşen Karakuş, said, "Since they are all students in Turkish schools, they have to learn Turkish just to make friends. They have a hard time making friends when they first come to Turkey but they also do not hesitate using their limited knowledge of Turkish because children do not judge each other. They feel comfortable around their Turkish peers and aren't afraid of making grammar mistakes. Compared to the adults, it is more than easy to learn a new language and communicate with others for them." Explaining that children overcome problems in school or in their social life when they are taken care of, Küçükşahin, said, "One of the most important reasons why I volunteer with this project is that they came from a country destroyed by a bloody civil war and found a home in our country. So I feel a responsibility for them. They are smart children eager to learn. I think if we take care of them and give them a proper education; it will be a huge achievement in the long term for our country."
Indeed, they are children with big goals for their lives, regardless of the present situation in their country and the sorrowful realities that some left behind while some others brought them with as ineffaceable memories. One student, Lena, wants to be a teacher and another, Bara, wants to be a detective. There were at least three children who want to be doctors and two who want to be lawyers. And of course, there are some who want to be football players, like many other children from around the world. The lessons they get do not have to be reading passages or filling-in-the-blanks on a text, but rather are up to the volunteer teachers regarding their relations with children. Thus, it was nothing to be surprised about when their teacher put on a famous Cem Karaca song called "Ceviz Ağacı," and the children started to dance to the rhythm while performing a show for me as the guest, forgetting their shyness. This warm-up session was a lesson in itself as the teacher wanted them to write the Turkish words they could hear in the song. Istanbul was the most written word besides the words they were familiar with from their everyday life such as "ağaç" (tree).
One of the things that got my attention was that they really like seeing something familiar to their culture and country in Turkey just as much as they like the Turkish culture. "When we travel around historical places like Sultanahmet or Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the colors and engravings mesmerize them. Arabic writing at mosques can easily make them smile as they feel close to their homeland. Even when we use an Arabic word, like 'salaam' they become extremely happy," Küçükşahin said.
The destruction of their homeland that happened in front of their eyes is still alive in their minds. Thus, it is highly important for teachers and volunteers to avoid using words that may bring them memories of their agonizing experiences from the war. "I try my best to be sensitive and avoid using terms related to war. I try to emphasize that as people, we are not different from each other," Küçükşahin said. "Even when they play with toy blocks, first they create a house then demolish it, recalling their sad memories about the war."
According to what Karakuş observed during her time at the center, the families of the children did not entirely explain how bad the situation in their country is to their children. "For example, I realized the difference when I asked my students about a song called 'Mawtini,' which means my homeland. The reaction the children gave when they heard that song was very different since they sing it together, standing up as a sign of respect. But the adults do not have the same emotions, saying that there is nothing left of their homeland, nothing left what they could call freedom, nothing left for them to fight for," Karakuş said.
The volunteers at Turkish Red Crescent Center are closely acquainted with the families of their students since they help their everyday business where they cannot communicate since they have a hard time learning Turkish. "This is a good start for both Syrian refugees and Turkey. They do not have to stay here when they have a home to go back to, but I know from the bottom of my heart that they will take something from our culture wherever they go. They will remember their experiences here. Turkey being so humanistic and inclusive is a huge advantage for all," Karakuş said.
I was confused after seeing the one-hour class with the Syrian children full of spirit. There were and still are many questions that I cannot find answers to regarding the different dimensions of our lives. One thing is certain: We all have to give ourselves a minute to stop whatever we are doing to think of what we would do if we had to learn a completely different culture, language or even a lifestyle to just make friends.