Turkish Educator Pledges $10M To Set Up Universities For Syrian Refugees : Parallels The war has put dreams of college on hold for some 40,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey. Enver Yucel hopes to create a higher ed system to meet their needs, with coursework in English, Arabic and Turkish.
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Turkish Educator Pledges $10M To Set Up Universities For Syrian Refugees

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Turkish Educator Pledges $10M To Set Up Universities For Syrian Refugees

Turkish Educator Pledges $10M To Set Up Universities For Syrian Refugees

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We are learning this morning about an immigrant community trying to advance in a new country in need of resources, including a quality education. The community is Syrian refugees living in Turkey. The possibility of millions putting down roots has caused tensions. But the reality that many of these Syrians are missing out on a college education because of a war has captured the attention of a Turkish educator who wants to create a university system for refugees. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.


UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Enver Yucel has a track record in education, the head of the Bahcesehir Educational Group. And he's made a fortune opening private universities, this one in the heart of Istanbul - six more across the globe.


AMOS: He also runs a chain of private K-12 schools, college prep academies with 30,000 Turkish students. Now he aims to educate Syrian refugees. With college campuses along the Turkish border, he's pledged $10 million of his own to get started. He wants international donors to pitch in, and his reasons are straightforward.

ENVER YUCEL: (Through Interpreter) Yes. A huge amount of them, percentage of them, will not be going back to their country.

AMOS: He says out loud what Turkish officials don't want to acknowledge. The majority of the 2 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey are not going home anytime soon. It's an explosive topic as Turks see Syrians as competition for jobs and services, blame them for rising crime. But Yucel sees a bigger danger. He says refugees left to languish without education or mobility are a problem for Turkey and the region. For one, they'll be easy recruits for extremists.

YUCEL: (Through Interpreter) We need to invest on their education. And we need to invest in gaining them some skills.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you so much.

AMOS: We're now in Reyhanli, a sleepy Turkish border town before the war. These days, Reyhanli is bursting with Syrians, many of them school-age. Yucel has sent his team here for a meeting in a hotel banquet hall. Filiz Dag, from the college project, leads the discussion.


FILIZ DAG: It is OK - right? - if I speak in English... Yes?

AMOS: These Syrians have already heard about plans to open a university for refugees, a curriculum in Arabic and English, with Syrian professors as part of the staff. I want to know who's in the room, these refugees dressed in their best suits and heels.

How many people in the room are professors or taught at university in Syria?

AMOS: The hands shoot up.

Oh, wow. OK, quite - quite a few of you.

They're part of a larger group of academics here, more than 400 in Turkey who haven't worked since they fled Syria.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Master in Web science.

AMOS: Web science...

ZAFER SEIBA: Linguistics.

AMOS: Linguistics.

It's a long list of wasted credentials, another hidden cost of the war. They know their children are doomed to downward mobility if education opportunities are lost. The numbers are striking for university-eligible students, about 40,000 in Turkey in college or college-bound before the war. So far, attempts to continue university studies in Turkey have largely been a failure.


DAG: You are living the situation. So what could be the possible solutions?

AMOS: Turkey's state schools accept refugees, but few have enrolled. Most Syrians don't speak Turkish, and they can't afford the language classes.

SEIBA: I guess, like, there is a big barrier; that is language, Turkish language.

AMOS: Syrian Zafer Seiba, a linguistics professor before the war, translates for the group. They want to know about scholarships. But more important, what are the fields of study?

SEIBA: What about the scientific branches, like medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering and this kind of stuff?

AMOS: Then he asks the question that's on everyone's mind.

SEIBA: Is it possible for the graduates of this university to work in Turkey?

AMOS: It's a critical question. Will Syrians ever be able to compete for opportunities in Turkey in a long-term stay? So far, the answers are on hold. Even as we reported this story, the project stalled - pushback from the Turkish public, pledges of support from the U.N.; international donors are delayed. Plus, there are more pressing priorities, food and shelter. But Turkish analyst Gonul Tol says higher education is not a luxury. She says over time, Syrian Arabs will see themselves as an isolated underclass in Turkey.

GONUL TOL: Because we are Arabs, no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, how smart we are, we will always end up cleaning the Turkish family's bathroom. We really have to destroy that sense of victimhood.

AMOS: Tol heads the Turkish study Center at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

TOL: I think Turkey's social fabric has changed forever. And the Turks, they have to come to terms with this reality very soon because more and more of them, they find themselves neighbors to Syrian a Syrian family.

AMOS: Walk through any Turkish border town, and you're likely to hear more Arabic than Turkish these days. Young Syrians are now likely to spend a lifetime in Turkey. And so far, prospects for their future are dim. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Reyhanli.

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