Meaning “school of peace”, Al Salam School delivers free education to over 1,880 Syrian refugee children and is the flagship project of the Syrian Kids Foundation. In October 2012, a group of Canadian volunteers founded the school in Reyhanli, Turkey, about one mile away from Turkey’s busiest border crossing with Syria. On the first day the volunteers expected 300 students. However the demand was incredible: 1,000 children were lined up at the doors. The volunteers accepted them all and redoubled their efforts to accommodate the expanding needs of the Syrian refugee population by building a second floor, hiring more Syrian refugee teachers (to a current total of 60), and running classes in five shifts from 7am to 6pm, 6 days per week for 1,880 students in grades 1-12. There are 1,000 children on the waiting list.
The scale of the tragedy of the Syrian war and its devastating impact on the education of its children has become overwhelming. The number of out-of-school Syrian children ages 5-14 has skyrocketed tenfold, from 300,000 in 2012 to 3 million in 2015 according to the United Nations. More than half of the Syrian refugee population has fled to Turkey. More than 85% of the 816,000 school age refugees live outside of camps, without access to basic humanitarian aid and education. Reyhanli’s Syrian refugee population is over 50,000 – the vast majority live outside camps with no access to education (UNHCR, 2014). The principal barriers to education these children face are a lack of schools in their native Arabic language, the high costs of transportation to schools, and the increasing rates of child labour. Faced with these obstacles, enrolment has plummeted, as only 14% of primary school-aged Syrian refugees in Turkey are enrolled in school, compared to near universal enrolment before the war broke out. These children suffer from trauma and serious physical and psychological damage as a result of exposure to severe violence and loss of loved ones. Without the emotional and academic support of a nurturing school community, out-of-school refugee children face a higher risk of engaging in child labour, being radicalized by extremist groups, and for girls, being forced into early marriage.
Our school is a rented concrete multistory structure consisting of 19 classrooms, a computer lab, a science lab, a front garden, a covered outdoor area for sports, and a backyard with olive trees. You can see a guided tour of the school grounds here. Our students are aged 6-17 years, and include some of the most marginalized children of the refugee community including 150 orphans, 120 illiterate children and a number of children with disabilities. From mid-June until August annually the school runs accelerated learning programs for newly arrived refugees, and remedial classes for failing students, in order to catch them up before the September school year start.
What do students pay?
Students attend Al Salam school at no cost: tuition, textbooks, equipment and stationery are provided through financial and in-kind donations. The school benefits from important partnerships with Sunrise USA and Karam Foundation (donation of computer lab) and the Syrian Education Commission (donation of textbooks). The school owns two buses to transport staff and students to and from school for all five daily shifts, which is absolutely crucial for their attendance.
What do students learn?
Al Salam operates on a modified Syrian curriculum with Arabic-language instruction, so that the children will be able to ultimately re-integrate into the Syrian education system. English and Turkish languages are taught intensively from Grades 1-12. All teachers who receive an stipend are Syrian refugees with full teaching qualifications and minimum five years’ experience. It provides 20 hours of pre and in-service teacher training per year in active learning methodologies that foster critical thinking, and enhance children’s confidence to voice their ideas and questions. The school benefits from the generous donation of expertise and time from 150 international volunteers annually who provide enrichment classes, train teachers and provide skills training for students. Our volunteers have delivered on-site workshops and training in topics such as English language, leadership, video editing, computer skills and arts and crafts. Notably, the school runs a student parliament to teach Syria’s next generation the value and responsibilities of democratic and civic engagement. Together, the teachers and volunteers work to uphold childrens’ right to education and provide a safe space and a child-friendly environment for severely affected young refugees to forget the war, socialize, run freely, play, thrive, and be children again.
Despite the hardships faced by the refugee community, in the 2014/15 academic year our students achieved an impressive 91% daily attendance rate and 80 of our grade 12 students received a Turkish high school equivalence diploma. The school has garnered a lot of attention from major news outlets such as CBC and NBC, who have filmed stories about the school, to update viewers on progress at Al Salam school.
Al Salam School Budget
The Syrian Kids Foundation is completely volunteer-driven, and through its committed network of volunteers and donors, the Al Salam School benefits tremendously from in-kind contributions as well as the donations made by our supporters. These contributions range from the school’s principal who manages the school full time as a volunteer, the travel and time of graduate students and professors from Universities and volunteer organizations around the world who provide enrichment classes to students and teachers, to donated laptops, textbooks and other learning equipment.
Al Salam School requires approximately $50,000 USD per month to function. This translates into a cost of approximately $1 per day to educate one refugee student. Staff salaries and transportation comprise 80% of the monthly expenses. Apart from the international volunteers, all other staff members of the school (teachers, support staff, and bus drivers) are paid an allowance to support their families. All of these staff members are Syrian refugees, with the exception of the locally hired Turkish bus drivers. Al Salam school plays a critical role not just as an educator, but also as a source of financial support, for the Syrian refugee community in Reyhanli. As the conflict in Syria becomes increasingly protracted, the burden on Syrian Kids Foundation volunteers to raise the monthly expenses each month is becoming increasingly onerous.