A Study in Conflict

Getting Syrian Teens Back to School in Turkey

Syrian refugee students in second grade wait for the start of their first lesson of the year at Fatih Sultan Mehmet Primary School in Ankara, Turkey, September 28, 2015. Umit Bektas / Reuters

This March marks five grim years since 14 boys in Dara’a, Syria were imprisoned for writing “the regime must go” on a schoolyard wall. In their small protest, they unwittingly sparked a revolution.

Young people were at the heart of the Syrian Arab Spring, and they have borne the brunt of the instability that has followed. For example, in Syria 12,000 children have been killed since the start of the war, over three million children have been internally displaced, and unemployment among youth is now over 30 percent, up 11 points from pre-war levels. Likewise, before the war, education in Syria was free and two-thirds of the children—both boys and girls—went to secondary school. Now, nearly three million children in Syria have no access to school; their old institutions have been bombed out or are used as command centers.


Among the 1.4 million school-aged children who have fled to neighboring countries, 700,000 do not attend school. In Turkey, which has welcomed 663,000 school-aged children, teens are pressed into adulthood too soon. One of them is Ghufran Shlash—a petite 17-year old who was in eighth grade when an airstrike crushed her school. “I went to school, even when it was dangerous,” said Shlash, speaking of her life in Syria. But the airstrike “destroyed everything, not just the school, papers, books—all evidence that we had ever studied there.”

When her family fled to Turkey in 2014, they couldn’t find any school where Shlash could enroll. Without other real hopes for her future, two months after arriving, Shlash married a 22-year old Syrian working as a tailor’s assistant. He expected her to stay home, so she quit the job she had found selling handbags. “The hardest part about life now,” she said, “is that I can’t go out often…There’s no life here.”

Shlash’s story is not unique. The child marriage rate among Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan has more than doubled from 12 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in 2014, according to a UNICEF

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