This summer I am volunteering at Small Projects Istanbul (SPI), an independent NGO working to integrate displaced families mostly from Syria into Turkish society where children can continue school, teens continue their higher education and mothers can learn to create and sell bracelets, bags, and clothing. SPI supports over 150 families and sends more than 20 children back to school each year. Last year I worked with SPI to understand how the organization functions and what they need to continue their progress. I played with the children in the nursery, learned how to make sustainable earrings with the women, and went out on excursions with the older students in order to understand the society these people would soon become a part of. I had just seen SPI’s #LiftUp campaign in 2017 when I decided to come again next summer. The campaign was to increase public visibility and support for SPI while telling the stories of incoming families. I had the opportunity to talk to mothers about how they liked living in Turkey and what challenges they faced. Their answers coincided; without money, the women couldn’t send their children to school, or afford a comfortable home, and they felt unwelcomed when they opened their mouths to speak with a Turkish accent easily identifiable as foreign.
Leaving SPI last summer, I felt the urgency for more funding in order to continue both the summer and the back to school programs. Almost all of the families stay in Turkey throughout the year, including the summer, so it is important that SPI supports them for the duration of the year. This led me to apply for a grant from the CSGC for the summer of 2018 at SPI. These funds will help integrate displaced families into host communities, which is a vital component in providing sustainable protection in protracted refugee situations. Through integration, SPI increases its members’ confidence and financial independence, which are essential for continuing personal development and reducing social tensions in urban and rural refugee contexts.
This year I was fortunate enough to receive a grant from the CSGC to continue volunteering at SPI to help incoming families and children find their path to success in a rapidly changing country. Once I told SPI of the grant I was able to receive, they asked me to tell my story of how and why I got involved. My answer, seemed simple. Turkey is what I call home and the refugee crisis is a global issue concerning hundreds of countries and millions of people, including 6 million Syrian refugees who are in Turkey!
What I thought would be a short talk about my involvement, turned into a diversifying conversation with displaced teens my age and volunteers from all over the globe. This discussion was what helped understand my passion to create change. Looking around the room I see Aya Onshan, a 24 year old Syrian girl, who left her home country due to conflict and traveled to Turkey. Aya was forced to leave school before leaving her country but once she made it to SPI, her dream of becoming an engineer found its way back to her. Through the Back to School program, Aya was able to apply to community college in Istanbul, where she will continue her education starting in September 2018. Aya’s story, although unique, has many parallels to the stories of the children benefiting from the Back to School programs. With a family of 7 and being the eldest, Aya became the main provider for her family after her mother became unable to work long hours sewing clothes. Aya currently works in a textile company just 10 minutes from her school, which she walks to after classes.
Kareem, a 19 year old boy from Damascus, Syria, also shared his dream of wanting to run a bakery shop. Currently Kareem works in the kitchen at a small bakery making one of his favorite snacks, simit, a ring-shaped pastry covered in sesame seeds. Although Kareem picked up a few words of Turkish during his early days in Istanbul and knew some English, his Turkish wasn’t enough to serve customers at the counter or move out of the kitchen. When he came across SPI, he was immediately drawn to the Turkish classes, which has been attending routinely for the past year. He hopes to continue learning Turkish to become fluent so that he can easily interact with customers and someday open his own bakery in Istanbul.
Mulham, Omar, and Fatima are three students who had also been able to continue their education after leaving Syria alone. The Back to School program allows future students to take Turkish and English reading and writing classes taught by volunteers before continuing with a formal education. Arabic classes are also part of the program as many families want their children to continue writing literacy in their native language.
In addition to language classes in preparation for school, students are also given the opportunity to create short films depicting “Life as a Refugee in Turkey”. These videos serve as youth empowerment projects with the goals of teaching communication, leadership, integration, and teamwork from the eyes of older students to younger generations who are new to life in Turkey.
This week, I will be a chaperone on a field trip to Büyükada, the largest of the Prince islands in the Marama Sea. Every year, SPI takes a trip to one of the islands off of the coast of Istanbul with the summer program budget to teach children how to swim, as many individuals in this group don’t know to swim. Because many of them are coming from inland Syria and SPI doesn’t have an easily accessible sea nearby, we will take a bus this Wednesday to enjoy a day on the island with lots of fun and swimming.
Over the next few weeks, I will be working on strengthening the Back to School and summer programs through my CSGC funding and devote my time to creating a long lasting impact on the families at SPI.