Gaziantep, Turkey – A group of Syrian children already well versed in the language of despair now have a chance to learn a vocabulary of hope at the Excellence Education Centre in Turkey’s Gaziantep.
In a bright and colourful classroom, the kids enthusiastically recite some of the Turkish phrases they’ll need in their new homeland from a curriculum designed by the centre’s owner, Asmaa Joha.
“When I would look into the eyes of Syrian children, I was feeling afraid,” explains Asmaa. “I wondered how they would feel when they got older and if I had done my duty and served them well as a teacher.”
“I brought just three things with me,” says Asmaa. “My personal computer that had education programmes on it, my printer and some paper so that no matter where I found myself in Turkey and so long as there was electricity, I could print out lessons from children’s education curriculum and continue to train and teach them.”
It’s why she started the learning centre, which offers courses to Syrian children and adults in three languages: Turkish, English and Arabic. When I ask why she offers classes in Arabic to students who already speak the language, she tells me the decision was based on a recent and personal experience.
“On Mother’s Day, my kids wrote me some letters – some beautiful letters in Arabic,” says Asmaa. “But I was shocked that they contained some grammatical errors. That made me think I should start some classes in the Arabic language because this is our original language and we shouldn’t leave it behind.”
Now a year old, Asmaa’s business is, so far, a success and she has become a role model in her community – an example of how Syrian businesswomen and men are contributing to their local economies.
“I want to stress one thing,” says Asmaa. “Humans, wherever they are, have to work and have to produce.”
“Every Syrian investment here today creates jobs for at least nine Syrian refugees,” explains Rami Sharrack, executive manager of the Syrian Economic Forum, a non-governmental organisation.
“We are talking about big opportunities here with the help of Syrian investors or private Syrian businesses in Turkey.”
Sharrack says refugees should be seen not as a burden, rather as a group that can produce significant economic growth for themselves and their host communities.
Since 2011, Syrians in Turkey have started more than 6,000 local businesses, according to a new report entitled “Another Side to the Story: A Market Assessment of Syrian Businesses in Turkey” by US based non-profit organisation Building Markets.
The report goes on to say those businesses have collectively invested more than $300m in Turkey, and that the “benefits Syrian entrepreneurs are generating are also critical for local communities affected by the refugee influx, which tend to suffer from long-standing economic problems such as unemployment”.
Sharrack, who is based in Gaziantep and helped compile research for the study, says “Syrian investors [in Turkey] have created new investment fields and industrial sectors” such as plastic carpets and shoes.
In Gaziantep, which sits on the border with Syria, you’d be hard pressed not to spot the numerous businesses both welcoming and catering to refugees.
Still, plenty of obstacles remain: Turkey, which hosts nearly three million Syrian refugees, only began allowing Syrians to apply for work permits in 2016. So far, only about 15,000 have been issued.
“In my opinion, the main problem here is the language barrier,” says Moujahed Akil, another Syrian business owner and entrepreneur now based in Gaziantep.
“For Syrians, not being able to speak the language is affecting their ability to enter the labour market here in Turkey. But I think those who have the language can enter the market and get a work permit easily.”
When Moujahed arrived here, he had great difficulty getting work. After he learned the language, things got easier.
“I came up with an idea to create a platform for Syrian refugees to deliver information in Arabic for people living here.”
The mobile app he created, 8rbtna, not only helps refugees find jobs, it also became the launching pad for Moujahed’s business ambitions. Now the owner of several companies, including a live translation service for Syrians, he wants his success to inspire and empower.
“The message I’m always trying to deliver in Turkey,” says Moujahed, “is that I’m not only a refugee, and that being a refugee is nothing to be ashamed of.”
It’s a message of optimism that transcends war, delivered in several languages, and to more and more customers, every day.