One World Academy, Part 2 by Rory Aurora Richards
MR KHALED ‘I love Mr. Khaled because he lets us learn.’ I was told by a 5 year old girl. ‘I love Mr. Khaled because he cares about us.’ said a young boy. ‘I am also here because of Mr. Khaled, says Ms. Ghada, the head teacher of the school. ‘I am offered work from other schools who have money to pay the teachers each month. I have not received a salary for almost 3 months, but still I stay. I stay because of Mr. Khaled and what he is trying to do for our children. Just yesterday a mother came with 6 children. Her husband was killed in Syria, she has no money to send them to school but she does not want them on the streets. Mr. Khaled took them all in. He even found notebooks for them. He said to me ‘We will make it work. We can’t lose these kids.’ - Let’s just say it is not my first time sitting in a principal’s office, but certainly not with a man like Mr. Khaled. ‘So you are the famous, Mr, Khaled? The man behind this school?’ Mr. Khaled looks down with an embarrassed and exhausted smile. ‘How did you get here?’ I ask. 'I came to Turkey from Syria several years ago, before things got really bad. I studied law, but I didn’t practice. My family had some property we sold in Syria before the war, and I bought some real estate here. Not much, but it gives me a small income, well it did, before the school. Now everything I have goes to keeping the doors open.' ‘How did this all start?’ ‘I traveled to the camps at the border where Syrian refugees were living. It was there that I saw the effects of the war up close, and I realized that the real victims of war were the children. I rented this building as a temporary shelter for families that were without a home in Istanbul. It was supposed to be a short term arrangement. But the war got worse, more refugees came. The refugees here had children that wanted to learn, we started with a small class of 11 kids, but the need was so great. Word spread quickly and other refugees began to send their kids to the shelter for the class. Now there are 347 students that come everyday.’ ‘What is your vision for the school?’ ‘I did not set out to run a school. It happened. I accept this now, and I am committed. There is no going back. But it was not my original ambition, but now it is my life.’ ‘Is it a religious school? A Syrian nationalist school?’ ‘NO.’ responds Mr. Khaled, emphatically. ‘The exact opposite. In fact, sometimes the kids put up small flags, and I go and take them down. Kids should not be exposed to politics or religion at school. I want them to come here to expand their minds, and learn to think freely. So they can grow up to decide for themselves what they believe in, and not what they were told to believe in school. I want them to think about the world, not just Syria, or Turkey. I bring in Turkish teachers because they need to learn the language of the country they are living in. I am actually thinking of teaching the school in English and Turkish only. This is the age for them to do this. Teaching them English will give them the most opportunity in the future. I want them to interact with people from different cultures and countries. We had a volunteer woman come for one week and teach the kids yoga. They loved it. They still ask for it. It is also important for them to express through art. You can see inside them by what they draw. At first when they come here they draw pictures of bombs and their houses destroyed. After a few months, they start to draw flowers and birds, and you can see them return to being children again. I feel guilty that I cannot provide this for them all the time, but we lack the funds to buy the art supplies. We lack the funds for the most basic things.’ ‘You are a radical.’ I say, somewhat sarcastically. ‘I have always liked new ideas. It does not interest me to run a traditional school. I want to introduce them to thinking of the world as one, as people as one. That is my philosophy.’ ‘But how can you do this? Less than half the families can afford to pay.’ Mr. Khaled shakes his head. I can see the ‘one world’ he is talking about and it is resting squarely on his shoulders. ‘Take a deep breath. ‘ I tell him. He laughs and shakes his head, resting a hand over his furrowed brow, embarrassed that his fatigue is so transparent. ‘Why do you do this?’ I ask. ‘I lost my father when I was young. I am the oldest. I have 5 younger siblings, so I think I grew up feeling a deep responsibility for others. And I know what is like for a family to lose their father. Without educations, these children have no future. There is not an option to stop. Somehow we will keep the school open.‘ ‘There are many volunteers and people that would want to help. What do you need most?’ ‘We need subsidies for tuition, so we can afford to pay our teachers, and to pay the rent to the landlord. To pay for electricity and gas. We need people to teach art to the kids, and bring supplies. We need sports for the older kids. We have nothing for them. They are much calmer after they are able to run around. But we cannot afford any equipment, or to rent a field once a week for them. They need to learn how to use a computer, but we have not even one. Just my laptop. We need basic supplies. The kids use one notebook for every subject. Sometimes we don’t even have enough pencils for everyone. Shall I go on?’ ‘Yes. Tell me everything.’ ‘We need more desks and chairs. Sometimes the kids must sit on the floor. We need to give them something to eat during the school day. Even if it just a piece of bread or fruit, so they can concentrate. Many families are struggling to buy even basic food.’ I have visited the school many times now, and have come to know the staff and students. I can attest first hand to the incredible commitment Mr. Khaled and his staff have to providing education and support to refugee children, and the respect that his teachers have for him. Ms. Ghada said it best… ‘Mr. Khaled is saving our children. He is not here because it a business, or because he cares about himself. He stays in school until 10pm to plan and make sure every thing is alright. He comes in the morning asking about updates on the kids and asking about their homework. He keeps track of every small thing. He makes sure the teachers follow up with every single child, and to know if they need extra help. No one cares more than him. I hope his goals and dreams of making this school a better place come true because these children are our only hope. They are all we have left of our country.