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In Turkey, most Iraqi refugees miss school as families await resettlement

13 Nov 2017 – By Oscar Durand

ISTANBUL (CNS) — In Iraq, Reeta, 17, was used to being first in her class. An eager student, she would wake up at 3 a.m. to review the previous day’s lesson and prepare for the next day.

But life here is different. Reeta and her family are refugees, and she does not attend school.

“I still wake up at 3 sometimes, but I just look at my phone to check the time,” Reeta said. “Sometimes I pray and sleep again.”

Reeta is among some 43,000 Iraqi Christian refugees living in Turkey. Community members say an overwhelming majority of their children do not go to school while families wait for a decision about their resettlement claims. The relocation process could end up taking years, leaving children without education for just as long.

Reeta and her family came to Turkey fleeing violence and persecution from the Islamic State in their hometown of Mosul, Iraq. Reeta had just completed the ninth grade and was starting to think about her future.

“I wanted to be a fashion designer, but now I don’t know,” she said. “Now I don’t know what is going to be my future.”

For Iraqi Christians, Turkey represents a stop on the way to a new life in countries such as Australia, Canada and United States, where Iraqi communities are already well established. Although children have the right to education and resources exist, most families say they do not see the point of sending the children to school in Turkey, a Muslim-majority country where they do not speak the language. Most families hope for a quick transition.

Refugee advocate organizations encourage children to go to school no matter the length of their stay in Turkey. They say attending school will help children better integrate into a new education system after relocation and help them heal from the effects of displacement.

After arriving in Turkey in August 2015, Reeta’s parents did not think of sending her and their two other children, Fadi, 19, and Yusuf, 12, to school. They thought school could wait until they reached their destination country. During the first few months they were busy navigating basic refugee procedures, going back and forth to different cities for appointments and paperwork.

“We didn’t expect that we would stay more than two years,” Ferdos Toma, Reeta’s mother, says. “But it has been more than that, and we are still here.”

More than 20 years ago, when Iraqi refugees first started arriving in Istanbul, the Salesian Fathers opened the Don Bosco Youth Center. The center is sustained by donations and allows families to send their children there for free. Today it houses some 120 students, 90 percent of whom are Iraqi Christians.

“What we are trying to make sure of is that these children don’t lose the habit of going to a school,” said Salesian Father Andres Calleja Ruiz, who heads the center. “They have to come every day; here is a schedule, and we give them homework.”

Although the youth center has the look and feel of a school, it is not one. The document students receive at the end of the year is not replacement for a diploma.

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