Innovative education for child refugees in Turkey

By Nina Ford | April 23, 2019 | Europe & Eurasia | Education, Freedom from Violence & Exploitation, Gender Equity, Youth Empowerment

In a world too often characterized by political, ethnic, and cultural division, one organization in Turkey is bringing children and families from diverse backgrounds together.

A group of volunteers started Mavi Kalem in Istanbul in 2000, after a major earthquake struck the Marmara region of Turkey. They worked to promote volunteerism and to support internal migrants – especially children – as they came to the city.

Over two decades, volunteers developed many additional projects to help children thrive, from education programs and art activities to workshops for girls. And today, true to its roots, our local partner Mavi Kalem continues to support migrants and refugees in its diverse community, building social trust and connection.

After the Syrian civil war started in 2011, Syrian families began migrating to Istanbul in greater and greater numbers. Now, there are more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey – and over 1.6 million are children. But, half of the school-aged Syrian refugees living in the region aren’t in school.

Faced with an urgent need, Mavi Kalem quickly adapted its existing programs to serve the Syrian children and families who had joined its community.

Photo from Mavi Kalem of children participating in one of the organization's programs.

The organization had developed alternative learning spaces and an educational curriculum for Turkish girls, focusing on girls’ empowerment, body health, mental health, nutrition, practicing sports, and protection from violence and sexual abuse. It modified these educational workshops for Syrian girl refugees, making linguistic and cultural adaptations, and it trained Syrian teachers to hold the sessions.

To better support the girls it serves, Mavi Kalem also began to reach out to their parents and community members. Its workshops for Turkish and Syrian women build trust, a sense of community, and an understanding of women’s rights. Workshops for Syrian men create a safe space to discuss difficult themes like violence against women, and to collectively commit to healthier, more equitable behaviors.

Gamze holding a Courage Award finalist certificate.
Gamze Karadağ, Vice Chair of Mavi Kalem, with a Courage Award winner certificate after the 2019 Global Philanthropy Forum.

“At first they don’t want to speak to each other or share their stories or experiences,” Gamze Karadağ, Mavi Kalem’s Vice Chair, said of the women who participate. “Then, they see that it’s a space for them. They feel that it’s an important time to share and to be together. They learn that they can sing together, they can eat together, they can laugh together, and afterward, they go out together and make plans together.”

With these activities, adults not only begin to trust each other and learn about their common experiences, but also support their children to do so as well.

Last year, Mavi Kalem reached more than 1,500 Syrian and non-Syrian refugee children, engaging their families and developing protection plans for children most at risk.

Mavi Kalem’s unity in the face of division, adaptation in the face of change, and dedication to serving the children and youth who need it most are why we named the organization one of the first-ever winners of our Juliette Gimon Courage Award on April 2 at the Global Philanthropy Forum.

Gamze speaking at the 2019 Global Philanthropy Forum.
Gamze speaks at the 2019 Global Philanthropy Forum.

“[Receiving this award] is very honorable for our projects, and our team also,” Gamze said. “It means we will continue our work, and it means the award supports our visibility.”

Global Fund for Children gives the annual Courage Awards through the Juliette Gimon Fund for Courageous Leadership ­– a more than $1 million endowment made possible by William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and other donors – in honor of Juliette Gimon. The awards recognize innovative grassroots organizations around the world that are positively impacting children in especially challenging circumstances.

Mavi Kalem, together with Courage Award winner ASOGEN, were selected for their courageous work from among 12 award finalists who have endured bomb threats, stood up to the Taliban, and defied deeply engrained practices like female genital mutilation and child marriage. The winners have channeled adversity into their causes, boldly pursuing justice for children worldwide.

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Global Fund for Children (GFC) UK Trust, created in 2006, is a UK registered charity (UK charity number 1119544). We work to generate vital income, create new fundraising opportunities, and raise awareness of the invaluable work of GFC’s grassroots grantees. Our aim is to extend the reach of GFC in the United Kingdom, Europe, and beyond.

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