A Syrian Refugee School: Nearly 2,000 Students, 5 Shifts, 3 Languages : Parallels Many Syrian refugee children haven't been to school in years. NPR's Deborah Amos visits one school in southern Turkey that serves as a refuge for those lucky enough to attend.

A Syrian Refugee School: Nearly 2,000 Students, 5 Shifts, 3 Languages

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One of the many stunning statistics from the war in Syria, more than 2 million children whose families fled that conflict do not have access to schools. That's according to the United Nations. So private donors have been starting private schools to fill this gap. NPR's Deborah Amos went to a school in southern Turkey that teaches English and computer skills and is struggling to stay open.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: When the Al Salam school opened in 2012, teachers and staff expected an enrollment of 300. They were overwhelmed when three times as many kids showed up. And since then, they just keep coming, now 2,000 students who arrive in shifts - five shifts every day, grades one through 12. Instruction is in Arabic, Turkish and English.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: Today we will make a review about our last lesson.

AMOS: At home, the students live in desperate conditions. But for a few hours each day, there's the familiar world of school. And that's why Al Salam's principal, 63-year-old Hazar Mahayni, raised private money in Canada and the U.S. Born in Damascus, she moved to Canada 20 years ago. And when the Syrian crisis began, as others donated food, clothing, even weapons, Mahayni believed education was the answer. Now she divides her time between Canada and the Al Salam school. When I arrived, I was ushered into the principal's office to meet her on a computer screen, in a Skype call from Montreal.

HAZAR MAHAYNI: It's now, let me see what time, 3 o'clock - 4 o'clock in the morning.

AMOS: In Canada, she's still a full-time pharmacist. And there's donations to raise. When she's not in Turkey, she's online.

MAHAYNI: Everybody in the school knows that I'm always on Skype. They know that I will listen and I will follow up. I just want them to know that there are a lot of people in this world who care about them.

AMOS: She's made hope part of the curriculum here, a reminder of normal life beyond the tragedies of war. There's a sports program for boys and for girls, a computer lab and mentors, volunteers who come twice a year for workshops on leadership. Here along the Turkish border, more than a dozen schools for Syrian refugees have closed in the past year when funds ran out. Al Salam remains open with a long waiting list. The school is struggling, but still there's a lot of learning here, including language classes.

AHMED GHANOOM: And they are second graders, yeah.

Yes, stand up.

AMOS: Teachers and staff are refugees too. Ahmed Ghanoom developed his method of language drills when he taught in a private school in Damascus before the war.

GHANOOM: Put your hands up. Oh, oh, what is this?


GHANOOM: Oh, is it a spoon?


GHANOOM: Yes, that's right.


AMOS: They beam when he draws a star in red ink on the foreheads of the best learners.

GHANOOM: In this school, we depend on playing if we want to teach these students, especially for the first, second and third graders, yeah. You can get their attention.

AMOS: The computer lab grabs the attention of older students. It's changed the future for 17-year-old Sabah Abdul Salam. She left Syria in a hurry three years ago when security police made a threat to kill her father.

SABAH ABDUL SALAM: You have to leave the country because you are death. So we get out from the country without anything - just dress, and we leave.

AMOS: She arrived in Turkey, studied computer science here, won a competition for a part-time job. And now she's working on a scholarship for college.

SALAM: I hope - I was dreaming about getting in medicine to be a surgeon. And I think that I'll make it.

AMOS: You think you'll make it.

SALAM: Yes, I will make it. I will fight for this.

AMOS: Education is highly valued by Syrians. And Al Salam's principal has a warning. As schools close down here, parents will risk taking their kids on dangerous routes to Europe, drawn by open classrooms and a future. Deborah Amos, NPR News in Reyhanli, in southern Turkey.

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