One World Academy - Part 1 by Rory Aurora Richards
‘The school is on a break, but the people that run it are there. We can give the supplies to them.‘ says Rosa hanging up the phone in the van.Our van is filled with school supplies and baskets for families. I am thankful for this van, and the donors that are providing it and all the love that it carries inside. And I am thankful for Rosa. Doing refugee work in a sprawling, 20 million person city like Istanbul is very different than on a scarcely populated island like Lesvos. In Istanbul you need transportation to get anywhere, especially when you are schlepping supplies, not to mention a local driver to keep you alive through the psychotic traffic. And you need a Rosa, an Arabic speaker living in the city who can help you navigate the very fractured pods of the ever evolving people and places that need help. Without these two tools: a car and a local translator, you will spend your days chasing your tail here. It was through a friend of Rosa that we heard of a free school for refugees that are doing amazing work, but are in desperate need of outside support. We are whisked through winding pedestrian streets by a boy who has been sent to fetch us. It would have been impossible to find otherwise through the cobblestone paths and stairs. An unassuming gate opens up into a courtyard with a children’s swing, and 4 men from the school greet us. They thank us for the school supplies and invite us for tea. Up until a year ago, the school was a shelter for newly arrived refugees. They were sleeping on the floors of the multiple story building. The parents decided to gather the kids one day and try to form a ‘class’ in the shelter. Even though the kids were of all ages, and without having pencils or paper, or even a whiteboard to teach the kids with… the class was just what they needed. Providing the little ones some much needed structure, and a reminder that they were still kids. For refugees in Turkey, sending their kids to school is not an easy option. Not only do they lack the funds to pay for tuition, the schools are taught in Turkish, a language they do not yet speak. Word quickly spread through the neighborhoods that there was an Arabic speaking ‘school’ and families started to send their children to the shelter to join the makeshift classes. Fellow refugees who were formerly teachers in Syria stepped up to volunteer. They soon had more children arriving each day than they knew what to do with. The shelter was phased into what it is today, a community school that is thriving, but barely surviving. The electricity gets cut off regularly due to lack of funds and they are performing small miracles each day with what little resources they have. ’We are doing the school in two shifts now. Morning and night. It is the only way we can fit them all. There are now 347 students that come each day, and 11 teachers.‘ says Muhammad, one of the working volunteers at the school. Muhammad is a psychologist from Syria, but his degree is not acknowledged in Turkey. Although 100% dedicated to the school, he is somewhere between an employee and a volunteer. The school is not ‘free’ as we had heard, but less than half the families can pay even the smallest amount monthly to cover the cost of their child. A local Syrian businessman, whose heart is bigger than his bank account, has been paying the rent on the building, but he is in way over his head and cannot afford to be the sole benefactor of a school that doubles in size every other month. The teacher’s salaries come only from what the families can afford to pay. As a result, the teachers, who are refugees themselves, sometimes go 2-3 months without receiving any salary. But still, they remain committed to providing education and safe space for children. ‘We don’t turn away any students.’ says Adnan, another teacher at the table. ‘In fact if we see children on the street, we try to convince their parents to send them here to the school to learn. For free of course. They should be in school, not at home or selling things on the street.’ ‘What is the gender balance of the school? Both with students and teachers?’ I ask. ‘It is balanced, until the age of about 13, and then we lose girls. This is the time when many factory workers want to hire them for sewing. We want them to stay in school but the economics of their family are greater than what we can provide. Our teachers are mostly female. We are not a religious or political school. Refugees from many countries and background come here. And girls and boys are together, and equal.’ ‘We don’t just provide education here.’ says Mohammad. ‘The kids need much more than just lessons in math. They are suffering trauma from what they have experienced. Many have lost their fathers, and their homes. One student lost 18 members of his family. We encourage them to draw, to talk, and to try and process what they have been through.’ I am blown away by their commitment to providing education, and their sensitivity in supporting the children psychologically. Not to mention the personal sacrifices they are making to keep it all together. ‘I think what you are doing is very honourable. I can see how much you care. I would like to help you if I can, even in a small way. I am sure others would as well.’ ‘If you don’t mind me asking. Why do you care about us?’ asks Muhammad. ‘Why would I not care about you? I can see you. I have also worked on the beaches in Greece bringing in boats, and I have seen the pain of your people up close. I have held your children in my arms, and I have wished for each of them that they have futures that are safe and supported. And I can see that you want the same. I am also a Jew. My people have also experienced war, and have been refugees. We too value education, as well as the importance of tzaddaka (charity). I think it is the same word in Arabic. In Hebrew tzaddaka also means justice. It is something we believe in, and justice belongs to everyone.’ There was a silence at the table. Then the men looked at each other and spoke in Arabic, and I could here the word ‘Jew’ in Arabic being repeated as they had a not so discreet ‘Did she just say what I think she said?’ moment. As Rosa tried to hide the smirk on her face, the 4th man across from me stared at me in an emotional silence. Then he raised his right hand over his heart, and I knew he was about to tell me something that was important to him. I put my own hand over my heart to receive whatever he was about to say to me. ‘My brother, he was shot by a sniper in Syria. The bullet was in his head, and it was a very bad injury. The hospitals in our village had been destroyed and so we brought him to the Jordanian border for help, but they refused us. We heard that if we took him to the Israeli border that they would help him. We did not believe this, but we had no other option...so we went. The Israelis took my brother in. They did a very complicated surgery on my brother’s brain, and they saved his life.’ Both our eyes are wet, and in this moment, I don’t think anyone else existed. ‘Thank you.’ says Abdul, bowing his head. ’Thank you to your people.’ I bow my head to acknowledge his words, causing the tears to tip from my eyes and spill down my cheeks. I don’t think any of us were prepared for the exchange that just happened, much less myself. Abdul and I take a moment to recover. Muhammad breaks the heavy silence at the table with a tone of awe. ‘These people. The North Americans…the Europeans…even the Jews. We were always told they did not care about us, that they were the enemies. But they come and offer our people help when no else will. They, of all people, remind us Muslims of our values of compassion and love. I am amazed. Really…I don’t know what to say.’ ‘Let’s build your school.’ I answer.