ISTANBUL — On a sunny Saturday afternoon in September, a group of Syrian children gathered with their mothers in a neighborhood park for a free program of games, songs and drawing.
For parents who fled Syria’s civil war to give their youngsters a better education here, the sessions led by Syrian music teacher Maisa Alhafez are welcome because Turkey has been unable to provide enough spaces for all the school-age children.
That creates a tough dilemma for the refugee parents: enroll their children in a school they can’t afford or send them out to work to help support the family.
More than a half-million Syrian children in Turkey aren’t enrolled in school, while many of the 330,000 who attend classes can barely afford the fees, according to UNICEF. Other children must work to help support their families, often in textile factories where girls are vulnerable to exploitation.
One mother in the park, Fatima El-Helu, said it took three attempts to find a school that was convenient and affordable. When the family arrived in Istanbul a year ago, El-Helu’s two children were placed in a Syrian school out of their area.
“The kids left the house before sunrise to go to a school that is very far away,” El-Helu said in Arabic.
After a teacher slapped her son, who has a speech impediment, she moved her children to a Syrian school closer to home. But the hours — 4 to 10 p.m. — and the fees of $110 per year plus $32 per week for transportation proved too much.
Now her children are in a Turkish school and seem to have settled in. Her daughter has made friends with a Palestinian girl, so she has someone to speak Arabic with at school. But money is still an issue. According to El-Helu, Turkish children get $10 a year for books and other supplies, while refugee students from neighboring Syria are told to share supplies or go without.
Turkey’s Ministry of Education, with funding from UNICEF and other aid groups, has set up more than 350 temporary Syrian schools in urban areas of the country, offering courses taught by Syrian instructors in Arabic. The government waived tuition fees for several schools, but parents still must pay a $30 registration fee and transportation costs.
Turkish law prohibits employing children under age 15, and those younger than 18 can work only under special circumstances, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their schooling, according to the Fair Wear Foundation in Turkey.
There are no solid numbers on how many children are actually in the workforce in violation of the law, but Human Rights Watch says child labor is “rampant.”
“Many children are working the informal sectors — washing dishes, carrying tea trays and selling tissues on the street,” said Daryl Grisgraber, a senior advocate atRefugees International. “Children work behind the scenes in the service industry. We also heard a lot about children working in the textile industry.”
Zainab Al-isa, 14, and Alia Ibrahim, 15, are friends from Aleppo, Syria, and both work here in Syrian-run textile factories. They said Syrian girls are especially vulnerable to working long hours and are paid $270 a month, while the boys they work with make double that.
Al-isa said she was attending a Turkish school but had trouble understanding her classes. When it came time to take midyear exams, her parents pulled her out of school to start working. Asked if she wants to go back to her studies, she said, “No, I won’t go back to school because I like working.”
UNICEF strongly urges the Turkish government to develop programs to protect Syrian children and ensure their right to go to school. The Turkish Ministry of Education declined to comment on the issue.
With the new school year just beginning, El-Helu said she is not sure what she will do if she cannot afford the transportation cost. “I just hope we can return to Syria soon,” she said.
Contributing: Muhammad Abunnassr
This story originally appeared in USA Today