慈濟傳播人文志業基金會
Make the Best of the Situation

Tzu Chi has established a school and a free medical clinic for Syrian refugees in Turkey. The facilities provide an education for refugee children and job opportunities for Syrian adults. They live their days the best they can and look forward to returning to their homeland when the civil war ends.

Rihan and Rama, both 17, are 12th graders at El Menahil school in Sultangazi, Istanbul, Turkey, a school established by Tzu Chi for Syrian refugee children. Neither of the girls can forget the sight, the sound, or the fury when airplanes took over the sky and began to drop bombs over their home towns in Syria. They were only 11 when the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011.

At first, Rihan was curious and went out to see what was going on, but the falling bombs and the sound of machine guns drove her back inside. She was badly frightened. Rama was just as badly frightened. Afterwards, whenever she heard the sound of airplanes dropping bombs, she’d promptly take cover and hide in a closet or under a stairwell.

Rihan’s father was hurt by a stray bullet, which left him unable to work. Her mother took Rihan to live with her grandmother so that she could stay in school. It would have been a short trip if they had not had to detour to avoid fighting zones—a 30-minute walk in peacetime turned into a 15-hour trek.

Rihan’s uncles had both been conscripted to fight, and they had not been heard from for some time. Her mother went out to ask around, but she came back leaning on a walking stick because a stray bullet had hit her leg. She also brought back the sad news that one uncle had been killed. The other uncle’s squad had been attacked, but there had been no other news. Perhaps he too had been killed. Rihan’s grandfather went insane fearing for his son’s safety. He called his boy’s name every day.

“The war destroyed my home, forced us to flee our homeland, and took our loved ones from us,” Rihan said. She hates how the civil war has turned her world upside down.

Rama’s brother was shot and injured by a sniper. To seek treatment for him, her whole family decided to smuggle themselves into Turkey, Syria’s neighbor to the north. During the journey, Rama witnessed throngs of adults leading their children toward an uncertain future, just like her own family.

Sensing that it could be the last time that she would ever see Syria, Rama knelt down and kissed the Syrian soil to say a solemn goodbye before crossing into Turkey.

Volunteer Zhou Ru-yi hugs a Syrian woman on a home visit. The woman risked her life to flee her home country only to come face to face with a hard life in her host country.

In a foreign country

Rihan, on the other hand, took a different route into Turkey. She and her parents took a bus from Aleppo, where they lived, to a border city in Turkey. Their passports were officially stamped, and they were admitted into Turkey. They then went to Istanbul, the largest city in the country. Her parents contacted Rihan’s three older brothers, who had reached Istanbul earlier.

Instead of being thrilled that their family had made it out of Syria safely, the three brothers were very worried because they did not have enough space for the whole family to live together. Eventually the family moved to a larger place in the Sultangazi district, which enabled them to live together again.

The older brothers worked in a restaurant. Only with their income could Rihan and her other brother, two years older than she, go to school.

Rama and her twin sister were less lucky. Their parents had been teachers in Syria, but they did not have the legal status to work in Turkey. Rama’s brother could not work either, as he had been injured by a sniper. That left just Rama and her sister to support their family. They worked in a textile mill.

Starting at age 13, the twins worked every day from eight in the morning to seven in the evening. They were home-schooled by their parents at this time, so study time was from 8 to 11 p.m. Their studies took a backseat when the girls worked overtime. This home schooling enabled the two sisters to pass exams and resume their studies as ninth graders at a Turkish school—after a hiatus of over three and a half years.

Being new kids in a school would have been tough enough, but being refugee students turned out to be quite unpleasant for the twin sisters. The children at the school weren’t kind to them. They discriminated against them, wrote mean things on pieces of paper, and then threw the paper at them.

Rama and her twin sister were not the only Syrian children facing such taunts at school in Turkey.

The Syrian civil war has raged unabated for seven years with no end in sight. Statistics as of the end of 2017 showed that about 5.5 million Syrians have fled their home country. Of those, 2.9 million have taken refuge in Turkey. Have they been able to get along well in their host country?

The Tzu Chi free clinic is staffed by Syrian physicians and nurses.

Tzu Chi’s assistance

Tzu Chi has been working to help make the lives of Syrian refugees easier in Turkey. The foundation’s aid to Syrian refugees in Turkey started in 2014 with distributions of daily necessities and financial aid. Today, the foundation regularly distributes aid to over 6,500 families every one or two months. At the same time, emergency assistance is given to an average of 150 families each month. Every day, refugees seek help at the Istanbul Tzu Chi office.

Lacking the scale and capacity to help all refugees, Tzu Chi has focused its relief work mostly in Sultangazi. In January 2015, the foundation started El Menahil school for refugee children. The physical facilities were provided by the Turkish government. Tzu Chi hires and pays qualified Syrians to teach. The school is thus semi-official and confers legitimate diplomas.

In March 2016, the foundation established a free medical clinic for refugees and hired Syrian physicians and nursing staff to serve patients. The doctors and nurses serve nearly 10,000 patient visits a month.

These Syrian teachers, physicians, and nurses, though qualified professionals in their motherland, were previously unable to work in Turkey, but now they are able to make a living in their areas of expertise at the Tzu Chi free clinic and school.

El Menahil grew from one campus to six, but Tzu Chi secured a new building in September 2017. Now the 2,300 students from the first five campuses have been moved to study in the new building, where a high school division has also been added. The sixth campus, with a student body of more than 500, remains at its original location.

Rama and her twin sister have transferred to the high school division at El Menahil. Rihan also got to spend her high school senior year at the school. Rihan and Rama are both preparing to go to college, and they both want to be physicians. “I want to help rebuild my country,” Rama declared. She said that this dream has kept her going forward.

Volunteers Faisal Hu (right) and Yu Zi-cheng visit the home of a Syrian refugee family to learn about their needs. Courtesy of Yu Zi-cheng

Professor Cuma Serya

Professor Cuma Serya, from Syria, is one of the most important people in Tzu Chi’s effort to help Syrian refugees. He used to teach at a university in Syria but fled to Istanbul after the civil war broke out. A Taiwanese student who had studied under the professor in Syria connected him with Faisal Hu (胡光中), a Tzu Chi volunteer living in Turkey. That’s how the foundation began working with the professor to help Syrian refugees.

Hu visited the Tzu Chi headquarters in Taiwan and explained the difficult situation of the refugees in Turkey. He also presented his idea to help them, and the foundation agreed to support him. Through Professor Cuma, over a hundred Syrians signed on as volunteers and helped visit needy families in preparation for aid distributions.

They have helped countless Syrian refugees over the past three years. With the large number of refugees needing help, the professor quit his job at a Turkish college and began working full time for Tzu Chi. He organizes aid work for his fellow Syrians and helps manage El Menahil. The help of the professor and the other Syrians is essential because there are only three certified Tzu Chi volunteers in Turkey.

Because of the war, Cuma has been separated from his own family. His wife and two sons originally came to Turkey with him, but then the younger son, 16 at the time, decided to smuggle himself into Germany to seek a better future. The other son developed mental issues, so the professor decided to let his wife take that son back to Syria, to the countryside of Damascus, where the professor’s mother still lived and where there was little impact from the war, in the hope that the familiar surroundings would help his son heal. But after they went back to Syria, the border was unexpectedly sealed. Cuma ended up being able to stay in touch with his family only via phone.

Cuma observed that Syrians are a family-oriented culture. Being separated from his own family makes him feel as if his head and limbs have been cut off from his body. On important Muslim holidays, he always feel so sad. Only when he is helping his fellow Syrians can he forget his own pain.

Professor Cuma and Syrian volunteers have visited one Syrian family after another to choose the ones that are most in need of help. They establish files for the chosen families and, based on their needs, decide on the kind of aid for them—daily necessities, cash cards, money for heating in winters, or subsidies for children who have given up their jobs in order to go back to school.

To help support their families, many refugee children have no choice but to drop out of school to work. Tzu Chi has helped some of these children return to school by giving financial aid to their families. As a former teacher, Cuma realizes the importance of education. He is happy to see Syrian children back in school at El Menahil, where they receive their due respect and care as human beings. He is the one who gave the school its name: the spring in the desert.

 

In November 2014, Tzu Chi volunteers started to round up Syrian children and help them go back to school. They opened El Menahil in 2015 with 578 students. Now the school enrolls around 3,000 students.

Tzu Chi free clinic

Every day, Dr. Abduljwad Kasab happily goes to work at the Tzu Chi free clinic in Sultangazi. Though a full-fledged family medicine doctor back in Syria, he was unemployed in Turkey for three years before he started to work at the free clinic. It’s apparent that being able to work as a doctor again is very important to him. “Now I do what I used to do in Aleppo,” he said. “Serving others has made me feel that I’m a man again.” Although he sees patients ten hours a day, physical fatigue from such long hours does not diminish the joy that he gains from working and feeling useful again. He feels wonderful.

Dr. Kasab appreciates Tzu Chi’s efforts to help him and his fellow countrymen. “Though we’re in transit,” he said, “Tzu Chi has helped us feel that we belong here.”

The free clinic takes up two stories with a total floor space of 1,830 square feet. It offers services in ophthalmology, dentistry, internal medicine, gynecology, pediatrics, and family medicine. Tzu Chi has furnished the facility with basic equipment like ultrasound machines, and it pays the medical staff a monthly salary of between 1,500 and 4,500 lira (400–1,200 U.S. dollars). Doctors at the clinic write prescriptions for patients, which can then be filled at public hospitals or clinics free of charge—a reflection that Tzu Chi volunteers have earned the trust of the Turkish government.

The clinic does not have a full complement of diagnostic and treatment equipment, so the staff sometimes needs to refer and, if necessary, help transport more seriously ill patients to local hospitals. If such patients need financial assistance, Tzu Chi lists them as aid recipients.

In Turkey, public hospitals offer free medical care to refugees, but according to what Tzu Chi volunteers learned from some Syrian refugees at Tzu Chi distributions, Syrian patients and Turkish doctors cannot understand each other well enough for the doctors to arrive at an accurate diagnosis, much less an effective treatment. On the other hand, private clinics operated by Syrians are too expensive and effectively price many refugees out. There was therefore a need for a free clinic where the care providers and patients spoke the same language. Such a need led to the establishment of the Tzu Chi free clinic.

Though the free clinic is not big, it treats a large number of patients, some from as far as 15 miles away. The clinic logs 300 to 400 patient visits a day. Its main draw is undoubtedly the Syrian physicians and nurses on the staff. There is a sense of kinship and shared roots among doctors, nurses and patients. “That’s the kind of feeling that a Syrian refugee longs to experience,” said Professor Cuma.

Professor Cuma Serya (right) leads his fellow Syrians in prayer at a Tzu Chi distribution.

Allah’s design

Tzu Chi volunteer Faisal Hu has run his trading business in Istanbul for almost 20 years. He, his wife, Zhou Ru-yi (周如意), and Yu Zi-cheng
(余自成) are the only three certified Tzu Chi volunteers in Turkey. Hu looked back on what had led to Tzu Chi’s aid for Syrian refugees, including the establishment of El Menahil school.

In October 2014, at a large-scale distribution held by the foundation, some Syrians indicated they wanted to sell the blankets they had just received for cash to send their children to school. That helped the three volunteers realize that refugees needed to have their children educated as well as fed and clothed.

“We’d just started our aid work for Syrian refugees at that time,” Hu reflected, “but that incident led us to ponder if we should seriously consider launching into education.”

Reflecting on the past three years, Hu admitted that they did not have a master plan of action along the way. They just did what they felt they should do.

Hu thanked the Tzu Chi Foundation and donors around the world for helping make their work in Turkey possible. As a Muslim, he attributed the whole thing to Allah’s grace and design.

Now El Menahil is up and running, and it is doing very well. The school employs over 70 teachers, selected from 450 Syrian applicants. Hu and Zhou even went to Ankara, the capital of Turkey, and pleaded with government officials to issue work permits and grant insurance coverage for the teachers at the school.

Originally the school had six campuses, but 2,300 students from the first five campuses were relocated to a new building that has a floor space of 96,900 square feet in September 2017. Each floor of the new building houses up to 11 classrooms, each of which contains up to 30 students.

Zhou said of the students at the school, “We hope to keep them company during this tough time in their lives.”

Hatred and animosity have torn asunder the lives of many Syrian people. Only love can patch up their broken hearts. 

Zhou Ru-yi, Faisal Hu, and Professor Cuma Serya (front row, fourth, fifth, and sixth from left) pose with some Syrian volunteers, including teachers from El Menahil, in the new school building. Courtesy of Yu Zi-cheng

 Compiled from information provided by Da Ai TV, Zhou Ru-yi, and Yang Jing-hui.

March 2018