Turkish buddy system aims to boost grades for Syrian refugees

Students hope help with learning Turkish will smooth the path of integration

A group of Turkish university students plan to launch a three-way buddy system to help refugee children in Turkey integrate and boost their grades in school.

The nonprofit, Virtuous Triangle, will launch in January to match up mini-support networks each comprised of a Syrian refugee child and a Turkish school child supervised by a university student – or coach. The NGO hopes all three students will benefit from the system, while helping refugees adjust to life away from home, said Ibrahim Çıkrıkçıoğlu, one of the cofounders.

The language barrier is a significant hindrance for refugees in class and in making host-country friends, said Çıkrıkçıoğlu.

“They either go to Syrian private schools, or NGO funded schools or they are left on the streets. They live in full segregation,” he said. “It is a vicious cycle. [Syrian refugees] can’t break down the language barrier so…educational attainment is limited and they can’t integrate into the job market. It is an educational and professional issue.”

There are 2.8 million Syrian refugees in Turkey who have fled the six-year conflict. Just 39 per cent of school-age refugee children and adolescents are enrolled in primary and secondary education in Turkey – the lowest tally for these refugees in neighbouring Arab states, according to the UN’s refugee agency.

The buddy system will be free for all students starting out with 20 ‘triangles’. Çıkrıkçıoğlu – along with cofounders Irem Ergun and Ibrahim Kibar – hopes to entice students to join the initiative by offering academic incentives. Refugees will be able to mingle with students of a similar age once or twice a week to practise their Turkish, while the local children will get coaching in a subject, such as maths or English, from the university student. Many parents in Turkey send their children to costly private tutors, so the incentive to have support from students at top universities is there, according to Çıkrıkçıoğlu. Most importantly, the founders hope the system will spark lifelong friendships between Syrians and their hosts.

As head of the ‘triangle’, the coaches will get credits from their university or the chance to intern with an NGO to boost their portfolio. The Turkish Red Crescent has already agreed to provide some internship places and volunteering opportunities.

Still, the nonprofit needs more NGOs and international organisations to offer internship places so Virtuous Triangle can attract more university students.

The issue of integration is a hot topic in many host countries, as well as in Europe. In July, the hashtag #ÜlkemdeSuriyeliİstemiyorum (I don't want Syrians in my country) trended on Twitter after Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested refugees living in Turkey could eventually be granted citizenship.

The project was one of three winners of this year’s European Social Innovation competition, netting a €50,000 prize ($53,500). The funding will help Virtuous Triangle with operating costs, trauma training for the coaches to help refugees, and activities that bring all the three-way buddies together. If successful, the NGO hopes to expand the project beyond Istanbul to other cities in Turkey.   

“We will focus on impact before increasing the number of triangles,” said Çıkrıkçıoğlu. “We will do surveys [such as] language tests for Syrians and tests for the Turkish kids. After we check the impact we will scale up.”