When I met Mahmoud, Abdullah and Eesa, they were being kicked out of a fast food restaurant across from Istanbul’s grand bazaar. They’d been trying to scavenge leftover food from the tables and ask tourists for money.
At 10, 11 and 12-years-old, their families were depending on them.
If they want to go on a field trip, we try to provide the transport and the food.
“My father is sick and we have to pay the rent,” the oldest of the three, Eesa, told me. “The world is crashing down on us.”
Sadly, it’s a sight that’s become familiar across Istanbul; young Syrian refugee children on street corners, hands outstretched, when they should be in school.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, there are now an estimated 900,000 Syrian children living in Turkey. More than half of them are of school age.
For those in government run camps, schools are provided. However, most refugees live in the cities, where things are far more complicated.
A somewhat chaotic patchwork of government agencies and charities try to provide education for the equally chaotic influx of families, but resources are stretched and many children are still growing up on the streets without a basic education.
It was this same sight that moved Nasirah Boudeh, a Moroccan who’s lived in Istanbul for so long that she’s now more comfortable speaking Turkish than Arabic.
She teamed up with a group of Syrian volunteers to set up a free primary school and pull those children in. Their biggest obstacle was finding a space for the school in Fatih, Istanbul’s historic – and overcrowded -district.
“Mr Necmettin Ucyildiz, the manager of the Sports club, told me there’s a sports hall you can use whenever it’s available, and so we started. We started with 25 students,” she told me.
So began an unusual partnership. Judo classes for local children continued in the evenings, while Syrian children got their primary education in the mornings. Rooms upstairs for older age groups were fully converted into proper classrooms. The school expanded to 100 students.
“We share whatever facilities the sports ministry provides us. For example, if they want to go on a field trip, we try to provide the transport and the food,” said Irfan Danaci, the deputy manager of Mavi Halic Sports Club.
The textbooks were provided by an educational charity, while the sports club helped to get uniforms and jackets. The teachers, some of whom work nights to support their families, also put their own money into running things.
In some parts of the city tensions are rising, as locals feel the growing refugee population is exacerbating a housing shortage and adding to the strain on resources.
But here, in this part of Fatih, there’s a bit of positivity in the air.
Follow Hassan Ghani on Twitter @Hassan_Ghani