Antakya, Turkey – Mustafa Shaker taught mathematics in Damascus before he fled with his family to Antakya, in neighbouring Turkey, last year.
He hoped it would be a temporary exile, but as fighting continued in Syria, Shaker grew worried over his four young children away from their schools.
“It’s simple,” Shaker told Al Jazeera, “I have kids and I wanted to teach them.” Inside the family’s rented flat in Antakya, Shaker began teaching his children and a dozen others belonging to his neighbours, also Syrian refugees.
As the fighting continued in Syria so too did the flow of refugees. And what started as 16 kids in his home has now become the al-Bushayer school that teaches more than 300 children mostly between the ages of 5-14, Shaker said.
Shaker, al-Bushayer’s principal, said the school is staffed by Syrian refugees and supported solely by donations from students’ parents and other exiled Syrians.
Walking through one overcrowded classroom after another, Shaker described how the students had come from all across Syria.
He stood in front of the classrooms asking studens who came from places like Aleppo, Homs, Damascus, Hama, Idlib, and with each mention a few proud hands shot up in the air.
While Turkey hosts around 102,000 Syrians in 14 refugee camps, where it provides education, a representative from the UN agency for refugees told Al Jazeera there are an estimated 50,000-70,000 additional refugees living outside the camps, spread out across various Turkish towns and cities.
Most of these Syrians either have the means to rent an apartment, or know friends or family who have offered to take them in.
While many Syrian refugees in Turkey said the situation for them there is better than for other refugees who’ve fled to Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq, the lack of a common language makes it impossible for Arabic-speaking Syrians to enrol in local schools without first learning Turkish.
Abu Tareq, a father from Homs, said that it’s imperative that the children study. “My son is seven years old, soon he’ll be nine and won’t know how to read.”
He said he was grateful when he discovered the school, which he sees as a way for children to cope with their ongoing displacement.
While many of the students wore symbols of the Syrian uprising and drew pictures on their notebooks of the three-starred opposition flag, Shaker said it’s the school’s mission to keep politics out of the classroom.
“We made the curriculum from the first day: no politics or discussion of political groups,” Shaker said. Another teacher explained how the only difference from Syrian schools and al-Bushayer is the exclusion of the ruling Baath party’s “nationalism” course that all students are forced to take inside Syria.
“The kids don’t have political ideas. They don’t support [President Bashar al-Assad] or [the opposition] Free Syrian Army, they’re just here to study.”
Shaker said the students are being taught about religion and diversity, “The most important thing is for the student to know they are Syrian.”
However, while they may be acquiring the knowledge, the students are not earning the official credits as they would from their government-sanctioned schools inside Syria.
And for this reason, not everyone is attending classes at al-Bushayer.
Time to study
Inside a well furnished Antakya flat, a new flatscreen TV hanging from the wall above a PlayStation, 14-year-old Bader’s family gathered around as he spoke solemnly about his upcoming trip.
“I want to return to Syria before they send me to Egypt,” Bader said, his gaze dropping to the floor.
Because there is no accredited Arabic-language high school in southern Turkey, Bader’s family (who declined to give their family name) decided it was best to send him to Cairo where his uncle lived and where he could continue his education in an Egyptian school.
Abu Bader (“father of Badr”), who was a shop-owner in Syria’s Latakia province and now says he’s an activist with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC), admitted that his family is well off, which allows him to send Bader abroad.
Most Syrian refugees, he said, don’t have that option.
Even now, with the family in exile, getting transcripts from Bader’s school inside Latakia has proven difficult and they worry could be problematic as he tries to continue his studies.
While al-Bushayer has created its own certificates and grading system, they are far from official and would not be recognised in the current Syrian education system, or by other schools in the Arab World.
In the meantime, Bader, wearing a bracelet of the Syrian revolutionary flag around his wrist, said he spends most days on Facebook, following pages created by opposition activists with the latest news from inside Syria.
Like many young Syrian men his age, Bader said he was less interested in studying as he was joining his father and other opposition activists at home in the uprising against Assad’s government.
Turkey’s changing tunes on Syria
“Maybe in the future it will be the time to fight, but now it’s important to study,” Abu Badr said as he patted Bader on the back.
Back at al-Bushayer, vans filled with young children came and went. They’re the school buses, and like everything at Bushayer, Shaker said has been donatated. But, Shaker said, it’s not enough.
He complained that the 25 members of his staff were overworked, classrooms overcrowded, facilities in need of repair, and that the school needed to hire specialists, especially psychologists who could help the children recover from traumatic experiences they faced before fleeing the war at home.
“We need help from the Turkish government, where is the UN?” Shaker said pointing to the outdoor restrooms without doors.
Carol Batchelor, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Turkey, explained how the Turkish government is making sure that all refugees’ needs are met inside the camps. Outside, however, a school would have to be granted official status by the authorities before the Turkish government or a body like the UN could support it.
Al-Bushayer has no official license.
“I believe [the Turkish] authorities are trying to move forward to find solutions,” Batchelor told Al Jazeera.
“This kind of generosity [from individuals supporting al-Bushayer] comes from goodness of peoples hearts shouldn’t be discouraged, but we have to be sure it’s managed properly.”
Until it receives accreditation, parents and teachers worry that the project might not last.
Sally, the school manager, described how the authorities had recently paid a visit al-Bushayer. She said the officer was very kind, but she fears he could come bearing a lock on his next trip and close the school’s gates.
“The most important thing is for the school to become legal,” Sally said. “Maybe someone will come and close it, we want the children to be comfortable.”
Follow Matthew Cassel on Twitter: @justimage