TURKEY: Don Bosco Center Provides English Language Classes and Education to More Than 350 Refugee Children
(MissionNewswire) The Don Bosco Center in Istanbul, Turkey, led by Salesian Father Andres Calleja Ruiz, provides special programs for young refugees from Syria as well as for a growing number of families fleeing ISIS persecution in Iraq. Because most refugees do not speak the local language, it is difficult for children to attend school and adults to find work. For this reason, the Don Bosco Center makes teaching the English language a primary focus of its programs.
Sharing a 500-mile-long border with Syria, southeastern Turkey has more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees, as reported by the United Nations. Salesian missionaries are providing services at three sites within Syria while also providing for Syrian refugees in Turkey. While many Syrian refugees stay in towns on the Turkey-Syrian border, many find their way to big cities like Istanbul where Salesian missionaries operate a program that currently serves close to 400 Syrian refugees.
The Don Bosco Center opened its doors 20 years ago as a temporary response to a wave of refugees from Iraq. With conflict continuing in the region today, new refugees and asylum seekers arrive every day. Currently, there are 350 children enrolled in the center, mostly from Iraq and Syria, who are being taught English as well as other traditional school subjects such as mathematics, geography and music. Students have access to sports and dance programs intended to help them connect with their peers and find enjoyment and comfort in their new surroundings. In addition, the program provides counseling both for youth and their families to help them overcome the challenges and traumas they may have faced.
“Salesian missionary work in Istanbul serves a critical purpose providing refugees links to service providers and comprehensive assistance as they transition, for an unknown period of time, into local society,” says Neill Holland, program officer at the Salesian Missions Office for International Programs. “Without a doubt, the biggest Salesian success is the safe space created for youth who have experienced trauma in their home countries. At the Don Bosco School and community center, refugee youth take part in recreation activities with Turkish youth which allows them to move beyond their hardships while giving them a chance to forget their worries and be children once again.”
Basima Toma, one of the center’s teachers, provides English language lessons to approximately 40 students. Toma, her husband and their four children are adherents of the Chaldean Catholic religion and lived in Baghdad, Iraq, until a Christian-owned business near them was attacked and destroyed, leaving them concerned for their safety. In 2013, the family moved to Turkey where they have found a renewed sense of security.
“Now I do not fear for my children,” said Toma, in a recent Catholic News Service article about the Don Bosco Center. “I put my head on my pillow and am not afraid when they are not with me.”
Like Toma, most of the teachers at the center are refugees or asylum seekers. Father Andres Calleja Ruiz reports that students relate better to and feel more comfortable with teachers that have gone through some of the same experiences and understand the suffering they may have endured. The teachers also speak Arabic, the native language of most of the refugee students, which is helpful in the classroom.
“Here we do not ask anyone what religion they are or to what political movement they belong,” says Fr. Calleja.
In addition to educating refugees, the center provides a safe space where they can sing and play. Many young refugees had never been to school or attended only sporadically because of war in their countries. Salesian missionaries at the center work to provide youth a sense of regularity and opportunities to catch up on their missed school years and childhoods. For one student, Sarah Mohammed, the Don Bosco Center is the only place where she and her sister are able to gain an education and learn both English and Turkish. The sisters and their family were forced to flee from Aleppo, Syria more than a year ago after an explosion near the girls’ school.
An estimated 9 million Syrians have fled their homes since the outbreak of civil war in March 2011, taking refuge in neighboring countries or within Syria itself. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3 million have fled to Syria’s immediate neighbors Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced within Syria. Refugee camps in these bordering countries are overflowing with families in need of basic supplies, adequate shelter and safety as well as technical skills training so they can begin to earn a living in their new host countries.
Recently, close to 150,000 Syrians have declared asylum in the European Union, while member states have pledged to resettle a further 33,000 Syrians. The vast majority of these resettlement locations, 28,500 or 85 percent, have been pledged by Germany.