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Ideas Beyond Borders helps Syrian refugees overcome the language barrier in Turkey

Dalia Zaki desperately wants to feel more welcome in Turkey but after two years she still struggles to fit in. “It requires learning Turkish, getting to know Turkish friends, and working in a field that enables a wider contact with Turkish people,” she says. 

The 58-year-old was an Arabic teacher back in Syria, but here she is unable to find work, due largely to the language barrier that makes Turkey especially difficult for Syrian refugees, despite better economic opportunities than other major host countries in the Middle East, like Jordan and Lebanon.

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Syrian refugees at an IBB sponsored workshop in Turkey

Her predicament is mirrored in refugee communities across Turkey, which hosts an estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the highest number in the world. Many live in ‘Little Syria’ neighborhoods to stave off feelings of isolation and otherness, surrounded by people speaking Arabic and reminiscing about life back home.

“It also makes them an easier target for racists,” says Hani Hamade, a 24-year-old Syrian refugee who has launched a new language school to help others escape the limbo of being unable to assimilate and adjust to Turkish life. “Syrians have lost trust in people, but I know from my own life that understanding the language and the culture is the key to improving their situation,” Hamade says. 

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Hani Hamade

He was 16 when he fled Aleppo for Turkey, leaving behind the school where he was a top student, childhood friends, and the city he grew up in. At first, he was miserable in Turkey. “I was depressed and lonely because I felt I had no value in this society.” 

He took what work he could get, doing long shifts as a tailor and clothes presser to support his family. He would work for 11 hours in the day then spend his evenings poring over YouTube videos to master Turkish and English. “I never thought I would give up because it’s not in my DNA, but there are a lot of Syrians who are on the verge of collapse. They have lost hope.” 

Now a professional translator with a thriving work and social life, Hamade wants to help other Syrians through Arkili Academy, which teaches the Turkish language and culture online. These tools will “allow Syrians to shine”, Hamade says, enabling them to contribute to the Turkish economy and become valued members of Turkish society. 

Since launching online in January 2021, the school has helped around 120 students, but Hamade plans to reach many more with a mix of group and private sessions alongside recreational trips and gatherings that cater to all price points. The name Arkili – a mix of Turkish and Arabic – represents the bilingual blend that can be achieved by each person taking lessons at the academy, he explains. 

A World Food Programme survey on refugee livelihoods published in 2019 identified the language barrier as “one of the main challenges Syrian (and other) refugees face in accessing formal employment,” and reinforced the need for skills development to increase their employability. The survey, which included over 2.4 million people, found that refugees have a very low command of the Turkish language, with four out of five respondents citing basic Turkish language skills and 18 percent at an intermediate level, while only 3 percent had an advanced command. 

One in 10 refugees have received training since arriving in Turkey, the survey found, just 0.3 percent of which was conducted online, despite a glaring need for remote learning opportunities during the pandemic.

Hamade aims to address this gap and create an online language portal with funding provided by the Ideas Beyond Borders Innovation Hub, enabling him to complete the Arkili Academy website, hire more teachers and develop a marketing strategy so word of the school reaches more Syrians across Turkey. 

“Hani’s life improved when he became better integrated into Turkish society so he wants to replicate the same thing on a larger scale,” says Ahmed Al Rayyis, regional manager at Ideas Beyond Borders. “Syrians now have been forgotten, they are pushed under the rug because nobody likes to talk about them, not even the media, but the problems they face remain very real… in fact their situation is worse than ever.” 

Noor Al Huda, a 22-year-old college student who also does classes at Arkili Academy, says she often gets looks of disdain in the street, and sometimes people tell her to go back to Syria, but there are acts of kindness that show her the “beautiful” side to Turkey and reinforce her desire to build a stable life here. Her hope is that by studying Turkish she can gain access to education, healthcare, travel, property ownership, and other aspects of the life she should be living.

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Learning Turkish opened doors for Hamade, who wants to help other Syrians and find the sense of belonging that has changed his life in Turkey. “People here are friendly, especially once they know you, but how can they warm to you if there’s no communication?” says Hamade. “If I can fix this, then the Turkish warmth and hospitality will bring these opportunities to Syrian refugees.”

Dalia Zaki relishes the diversity of Turkey’s multicultural communities, but without a better grasp of the language, there will always be a barrier, which is why she has joined Arkili Academy. “Thanks to the classes, I can now understand my daughter’s Turkish teacher,” she says.

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