Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, as the number of people forcibly displaced across the world due to conflict, violence, and persecution hits a record high. Currently, 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees live in the country. Among them is Ismail. He is a 23-year-old from Aleppo. Ismail recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and became the director of the Turkish program at Paper Airplanes (PA).
He first found out about PA when he was preparing college applications in 2016. Ismail enrolled in the English program as a beginner student. This week, I had the pleasure to interview him in English and ask him about his journey to Turkey.
He told me, “ I came to Turkey in 2014, with my family. It was obviously a tough experience: leaving my home and my country… I didn’t know anyone here at first and the culture was very different from the one I came from. Thank God I had my family with me. Many people travel on their own without anyone”.
Living in Turkey is hard and many in the Syrian community are unhappy about their life in the country because of growing anti-refugee sentiment. The lack of socio-economic inclusion is a big factor as well. Nearly two million refugees live below the poverty line in Turkey. For Ismail, one of the biggest obstacles refugees encounter is the language barrier.
“The language plays a huge role in the hardships of refugees’ life. Here, it is impossible to find English, or even Turkish, programs for free. You usually need to pay so much! It is definitely too much for many refugee families: They spend all day working to make ends meet and pay for bills, housing and food… It becomes hard to find money to pay for language classes.”
When I asked him about his relationship with the Turkish language, he told me he learned it through formal and informal means. “When I came here, there was not an Arab speaking school to complete my studies, so I decided to work. Job places were full of Turkish people! That’s how I managed to learn some speaking language. Then I enrolled in a beginner Turkish class. I kept practicing in my daily life when I worked as a cashier and I still do every day when I go to the market or around town….”
Knowing the language of the host country is a fundamental asset for refugees. Without it, it becomes impossible to get access to employment, education, or even health services. Even for those who are fluent in Turkish, as Ismail is, it is hard to find job opportunities. The unemployment rate in the country motivated Ismail to continue in his studies.
“After I graduated I looked for a job opportunity, but I couldn't find any. It really is hard for refugees to find jobs in this country, because Turkish students have priority in government job opportunities… All jobs in the private sector require experience, and as a fresh graduate I don’t have that.”
He is now pursuing a master’s degree in electrical engineering with the help of PA. He explained, “PA has an advising [program] that helps you find scholarship and higher education opportunities. They advised on what to prepare for.”
After graduating from the English program, he became a student coordinator for the English program and was later offered a job as the managing director of the Turkish program.
“I wondered whether to accept the place or not. I was in college, still studying for exams, but the English program manager and the managing director advised me and encouraged me to take this responsibility. I thank them so much for that. I wouldn’t be where I am now without them!”
The Turkish program mainly targets Syrian and other foreign students who are based in Turkey; they are usually between 20 and 35 years old. Classes are offered in two levels: beginner and intermediate. Teachers are native Turkish-speakers and mainly focus on speaking skills. He told me about the struggles and satisfactions of his job as managing director. “When I first got hired we didn’t have enough tutors to meet the demands of applicants. Ever since, we’ve been working on tutors recruitment. In the first semester we were able to make only five pairs. In the second semester it was 15 pairs; in the third semester it was 21 pairs. We could finally meet almost all of our student needs! The majority of them [are] so happy to have this opportunity online and for free, and more importantly to speak with a native speaker.”
Ismail is very proud to be part of PA. “Language programs make it easier for Syrians here to stay and settle in Turkey. Paper Airplanes is really helping the Syrian community, by providing all its online courses for free. What the organization is doing is really essential at this point.”
About the author: Giada Santana
I am an Italian–Dominican student majoring in philosophy, international studies, and economics. However, I spent my final year abroad focusing on international development at the University of Sussex. Here at Paper Airplanes, I conduct interviews, write for the blog and help with social media posts. When I'm not volunteering with Paper Airplanes, I love practicing yoga, reading and creating playlists on Spotify.
The views and opinions represented in this post belong solely to the author of the blog post, and are not representative of the views and policies of Paper Airplanes and its staff members.