Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Millions of Syrian refugees live in Turkey. Their children have been able to attend schools with Turkish students, but the instruction is in Turkish. In 2015, Tzu Chi volunteers started El Menahil school, in which instruction is in Arabic, for Syrian refugee children. Volunteers have also established a free clinic, which is open seven days a week, and they regularly distribute aid to Syrian families.

The Tzu Chi Turkey branch started providing care for Syrian refugees in 2014. Now the branch distributes aid to more than 6,000 families every month. Each home receiving assistance has been previously visited by volunteers to ascertain that they are indeed in need. The volunteers interview the families, record their assessments, and perform other administrative work. Only after such efforts have been expended can a refugee family be placed on the distribution roster.

Volunteers have also set up a free clinic, which serves more than 8,000 patient visits a month, some of which result in referrals to local hospitals.

El Menahil, a school established by Tzu Chi and the government of the Sultangazi district of Istanbul, enrolls more than 3,000 students from elementary to high school. On weekends the school offers adult literacy classes and classes for learning Turkish and Arabic languages. Classes on the Quran are also offered.

Students at El Menahil form hearts with their hands to greet Tzu Chi volunteers. Mohammed Al Jamal

There are three certified Tzu Chi volunteers in Turkey: Faisal Hu (胡光中), the head of Tzu Chi Turkey, his wife, Nadya Chou (周如意), and Yu Zi-cheng (余自成). Without their efforts, the services for the refugees—the monthly aid distributions, the free clinic, and El Menahil school—would not exist. By themselves, each service is a major undertaking. The three volunteers alone could not possibly handle the vast amount of work needed to support all three. But behind the three volunteers is the support of the Tzu Chi Foundation headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, and more than 200 Syrian refugees who serve as volunteer helpers.

When Tzu Chi started in Taiwan, it was 30 housewives who donated to and supported the foundation. Most Tzu Chi volunteers in other countries are females, too. In stark contrast to this are the Syrian volunteers in Turkey, who are almost entirely men between 20 and 40 years of age, many of whom are teachers or staffers at El Menahil.

I work at the Religious Culture and Humani­tarian Aid Department, at the Tzu Chi Foundation headquarters, in Taiwan. In late 2018, I was part of a Tzu Chi delegation from Taiwan that visited Tzu Chi Turkey to help with some distributions. We arrived in Turkey at six in the morning on November 24 and stayed until late at night on the 27th. Syrian volunteers accompanied our delegation every day through the entirety of our visit.

Computerized system

Tzu Chi Turkey currently sponsors more than 6,000 families. The monthly distributions held for them used to take place in a small facility, which limited each distribution to less than 200 recipient families. As a result, volunteers had to conduct distributions for the major part of a month. By the time they finished distributing aid to all 6,000 families, it was about time for them to start the next month’s distribution.

However, in recent years the distributions have been taking place at El Menahil. With more space available, volunteers have been able to process 650 families in every distribution. Because they can quickly and smoothly handle many more people in a much shorter time, they need to do fewer distributions a month. Such efficiency is possible only because they are using a powerful software system. During our visit, Faisal Hu asked Basel Khalil, 29, the developer of the system, to explain to us how the system works. Khalil is from Damascus, the national capital of Syria.

This system assigns each recipient to a designated distribution on a specific date. It sends information about the upcoming distribution in advance via a text message to the cell phone of each recipient. When recipients report to their designated distribution, their Tzu Chi cards are read with a barcode scanner, which triggers a printout for each card holder. The printout tells the recipient which window to visit to receive his aid, and which page of the distribution roster to place his fingerprint on to indicate that he has come to receive the aid. After the aid is handed over to the recipient, a volunteer tears up the printout. This computerized system has made speedy distributions possible.

Khalil has also developed a medical records system for the Tzu Chi free clinic, and a time and attendance system for the teachers at El Menahil school. Gao Da-zhen (高大正), a member of our delegation, pointed out that Taiwanese businesses usually contract out the development of systems like these to outside contractors as the work usually entails team efforts. Gao was awed when he learned that Khalil alone had designed and developed those systems.

Khalil explained modestly that the systems had been the result of much trial and error. He had studied along the way and spent a lot of time perfecting the systems until they were good to go.

One time, a company offered Khalil a high salary in an attempt to snatch him away from Tzu Chi, but he declined. He preferred to stay put. He said that he worked so he could live comfortably and be at peace with himself. “Now I work for Tzu Chi. This is, for me, the best life,” he said.

Prompted by text messages sent to their cell phones, Syrian refugees report to a distribution venue, where volunteers scan their Tzu Chi cards.




The card scans trigger printouts, which further tell recipients which window to visit to receive their aid. This computerized system greatly speeds up the distribution process.

Our souls met thousands of years ago

El Menahil was the venue for most of the activities that our delegation was involved with during our trip to Turkey.

The school had just experienced a scare: A change in government policy almost shut it down two months before we arrived. Through a lot of effort on the part of volunteers—and maybe something of a miracle—the school survived. It has been accredited by AdvancED, an American accrediting agency. With that accreditation, the school’s students can now continue attending the school and they are also eligible to apply for admission to schools in other countries when they graduate.

When we were helping with distributions at El Menahil, we often came across school employees or students sweeping or mopping the floors. Several times I saw schoolteachers walking before me abruptly stop and bend down to pick up trash from the floor. Such small acts reveal their love of the school. They take care of the school like their own home.

At El Menahil, we were always able to get help quickly, whenever we needed it. One day my colleague Chen Ying-zhi (陳瑩芝) and I walked around the school looking for a spot suitable for our delegation to hold a video conference with our headquarters in Taiwan the next day. When we had decided on the spot, we then needed to find a projector, some tables and chairs, and extension cords. We saw a man standing nearby, so we approached him and asked for help. Though he wasn’t responsible for those things, he didn’t decline our request—he simply agreed to help and delivered what we needed in short order. He even served us tea when we were testing our setup. Similar scenarios happened time and again.

We received enthusiastic help again the day before we were to hold a ceremony to celebrate the school’s accreditation by AdvancED. We were planning to unveil a new sign bearing the school’s new name, El Menahil International School, during the ceremony. Unveiling a sign was a foreign concept to the Syrian refugees, so we explained our requirements. We told them that we wanted a large red cloth to cover the sign. (Red is an auspicious color in Chinese culture.) Faisal Hu pointed out that it was a Sunday, so some stores might not be open. He inquired about the possibility of substituting a blue table cloth for a red cloth should that become necessary. We told him that would be acceptable. We said that sign unveiling was just a symbolic act—a way for us to give our best wishes to the school, and if it was too much trouble, we did not have to stick to the form down to the last letter. Hu said that it was no trouble at all for him because he had a good team of volunteers that would figure out a way to deliver.

All Tzu Chi distributions for Syrians in Turkey start with a recitation of the Quran.

On the very day we made the request for the red cloth, we were holding distributions at the school. By the time the five consecutive distributions finally concluded, it was well past seven in the evening. While our delegation went back to our hotel, the local volunteer team started to prepare for the unveiling ceremony the following morning. When we returned to the school after eight the next morning, the school sign was already veiled with a red gauze cloth.

It seems that there is no problem that Hu and his cohort of volunteers cannot solve.

Besides Syrian volunteers, Turkish volunteers have also played key roles in helping Tzu Chi carry out its work in the country.

Ali Uslanmaz, deputy governor of Kayseri Province, Turkey, has been a stalwart Tzu Chi supporter. He took a red-eye flight from Kayseri to Istanbul at 2:00 a.m. on November 24, and he waited until 6:00 a.m. in the airport to greet our delegation. Together, we went to El Menahil school to help with distributions.

The deputy governor was with us through our entire trip. He was there during every distribution, during the school sign unveiling ceremony, and during our visit to the Tzu Chi free clinic. I learned later that he did not understand a word of Arabic, which was used all throughout those days when things were translated for us into or from the Chinese language. The deputy governor had no idea what was being said the entire time, and yet still he patiently accompanied us through all those activities.

We were impressed by his gracious hospitality. After all, he is a high-ranking officer of a province. We realized that he must have a high regard for Master Cheng Yen and a very warm affinity with Tzu Chi volunteers. As he said: “Our souls must have met hundreds or even thousands of years ago, so despite the language barrier, our souls communicate.”

Professor Cuma Serya, left, greets recipients during a distribution. Over the years, the professor has worked with Tzu Chi volunteers in Turkey to aid his fellow Syrian refugees.


Bringing hope

Zhang Ming-huan (張明煌) was a member of our delegation. He serves as a volunteer leader back in Taiwan. During our trip, he shared with us that as a leader he realizes how difficult it is to lead people and to get them to take on work. For this reason, he readily gives Faisal Hu a big thumbs up.

Hu has indeed assembled a large cohort of devoted Syrian volunteers. They are good workers who make the distributions to 6,000 families happen every month. I recall hearing one Syrian volunteer say that he had seen the virtues that the Quran extols displayed or practiced by Tzu Chi volunteers—virtues that are practiced by and transcend all religions and ethnicities. Maybe it is because of this that Faisal Hu and Tzu Chi have won the hearts of the Syrians.

Volunteers or otherwise, the Syrian refugees that we met in Turkey were all sincere and warm. One day during a distribution, a Syrian woman came up on stage while we were singing a song accompanied with hand gestures, and she gave Nadya Chou, one of the three cadre volunteers in Turkey, a big tight hug. Chou couldn’t help crying, notwithstanding the fact that she had worked in many distributions and had cried with refugees many times previously. Everyone present was deeply moved by the scene. Such touching moments abounded in the distributions.

At another distribution, another Syrian stepped on stage to share his thoughts. He said that in times of peace, Syria had taken in and helped refugees from such countries as Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, and Yemen. However, now that Syria was consumed by a civil war, those nations had not reciprocated the favor. Instead, it was a charity foundation based in Taiwan, 5,000 miles away, that had extended aid to them and brought them hope.

Syrian refugees have expressed their appreciation for Tzu Chi not only through words but actions as well. This time, for example, our delegation brought with us 32 large coin banks in which refugees could deposit their donations during distributions. The Syrians responded generously. Donations poured in, and by the morning of the second day, the banks had already filled up.

A young man even insisted that we accept his donation of a watch. His wife had given it to him for Valentine’s Day one year, and it was the most valuable thing he owned. He felt that only this prized possession of his could help him convey his gratitude to Tzu Chi.

Ali Uslanmaz (middle), deputy governor of Kayseri Province, and Tzu Chi volunteers unveil the sign of El Menahil International School.


Harmony among religions

I was impressed during this trip by how deeply ingrained Islam is in the everyday lives of the Syrian refugees and local people. The call for prayers, the adhan, sounded regularly five times each day, calling Muslims to stop and pray. Even a time and place during our distributions were set aside for participants to pray. We also visited the homes of some aid recipients and at the end of their talks with us, they always said to us something like “May Allah bless you” or “Allah will help us through all this.”

We met a six-year-old during one of our home visits. She goes to El Menahil, so we invited her to show us an example of what she had learned at school, something like a song or a dance. She chose instead to recite from the Quran. She had hardly started reciting when her brother, age 4, joined her. Together, they recited a passage without missing a beat or making a mistake.

Many refugee children, though attending Turkish schools, come to El Menahil on weekends to learn Arabic. They explained that the Quran is written in Arabic and they must not forget their own country and religion.

Devoted Muslims from Syria and Buddhists from Taiwan intermingled in perfect harmony during our mission to Turkey. This seemed to echo what Master Cheng Yen says: “Religions are largely similar; they differ only in minor points. If you have a large heart, you see similarities, while small-mindedness leads you to perceive only the differences.”

During our trip, our delegation couldn’t really help much—the local volunteer team could have just as easily carried out the distributions had we not been there. However, our presence there sent the refugees a message of love from Taiwan and from Tzu Chi volunteers all over the world and let them know that we care about them.

Now that we are back in Taiwan, we can help the refugees by playing the role of a bridge, by letting more people on the outside learn about their quandary and opening their hearts to help them too. 

Students at El Menahil put on a performance for the Taiwanese Tzu Chi delegation.


This School Nurtures Love, Gives Love

Narrated by Muhammad Aburas (right)

By Guo Su-fang

Translated by Tang Yau-yang

Photo by Yu Zi-cheng


I’m 31. I’ve taught at El Menahil for four years. Professor Cuma is like a father to me and Faisal Hu like a brother. I consider them my family.

Together they founded this school. Every morning Professor Cuma arrives an hour ahead of time to open the school for the day, and he stays two hours after school. Some people establish schools to make money, but El Menahil was established to nurture and give love. It is no wonder that every Syrian child here blooms beautifully like a flower.

I am very fortunate. My entire extended family of more than 50 people moved to Turkey in 2012. I am grateful to this country. It is full of goodwill and willing to take in citizens of other countries. Turkey is my second home.

Aside from teaching at El Menahil, I volunteer in every distribution held at the school. I have also visited more than 60 refugee homes with other volunteers. We gave them blankets and furniture, and we established aid files for the families. When refugees become ill, I help refer them to the Tzu Chi free clinic.

Professor Cuma and Faisal Hu have made me feel that Tzu Chi will always be with us, that Tzu Chi will always stand by us. This is our school. If we don’t volunteer here, who else will?


Working for Hope

Narrated by Asaad Alnnayer

Text and Photo by Guo Su-fang

Translated by Tang Yau-yang


I am 35 years old and from Syria. This is the fourth year I’ve lived in Turkey.

Most people know very little, just fragments actually, about the situation in my home country. The reality there is much more serious than what has been reported in the mass media. I spent two years of my life in the midst of a civil war. Syria was like a sinking ship.

In 2015, my wife, my 2-year-old son, and I traveled by car to the Syrian border with Turkey. From there we trekked into Turkey. It took us four hours, carrying our son on our backs, to traverse the ten kilometers (6.2 miles) of mountainous road to get into the country. It was the only nation that would accept us at the time. It issued us visas. I will never forget this kindness.

I was a teacher in Syria. I could teach any subject matter; I was enthusiastic about education. I also liked to volunteer. I volunteered for the Red Cross in Syria.

When I saw an ad placed by El Menahil school for teachers, I jumped at it. It seemed like a great opportunity to serve my own people. I have taught at the school ever since.

I teach English at El Menahil. Professor Cuma  and Faisal Hu are like fathers to us there. The family-like atmosphere is why I like the school. Suppose it was you who had escaped war, felt heartbroken and helpless, and faced fierce competition for jobs in a foreign country. If, after all these challenges, someone trusted you unconditionally and helped you, wouldn’t you feel deeply moved? The two of them are like our spiritual pillars.

When I first came to Turkey, I thought that I would return to Syria in a few months. Little could I have imagined that I would still be here four years later. My son is now six years old. I hope that he will be able to attend El Menahil one day, and I also hope that the school’s students can go to study in Taiwan. I like Tzu Chi, so I like Taiwan too.

To be honest, many people have asked me whether Tzu Chi established El Menahil in order to spread Buddhism. My reply to such questioners has always been: “No. Tzu Chi volunteers are a bunch of nice folks sharing their love with us. They don’t have any ulterior motives.”

Working elsewhere might be just for making a living, but here at El Menahil I feel I’m working for hope. I have received much care here. How can I ever pay it back? I will do the same to help others, in the way that Tzu Chi has helped me. From Faisal Hu and Professor Cuma, I’ve learned how to help others from the bottom of my heart.

March 2019