Once a sleepy border town, Reyhanli, Turkey, is now bursting with Syrian refugees, many of them school-age. More than half a million Syrian refugee children are out of school, and the education crisis is fueling an epidemic of early marriage, child labor and bleak futures.
"I just finished the 12th grade and I don't know what to do," says Abdullah Mustapha, a refugee from the Syrian town of Hama.
In fluent English, he talks about his dreams of a college education, but he doesn't speak Turkish well enough to pass the language test required for state universities.
He's not alone. More than 40,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey would have been college bound before the war, but attempts to continue university studies in Turkey largely have been a failure.
Now, Turkish educator Enver Yucel is offering an ambitious solution: an accredited university system, with coursework in Arabic and English as well as Turkish, on campuses along the Turkish border.
He has pledged $10 million of his own money to get started, and he wants international donors to pitch in. His reasons are straightforward: Syrian refugees — more than 2 million of whom now are in Turkey — are not going home anytime soon.
"They don't have any homes left there, physically. They started to have marriages in our country, started to have jobs," he says.
It's what the U.N. terms a "protracted refugee situation," when exile is likely to last for decades. Yucel says out loud what Turkish officials do not want to acknowledge: Syrians are now permanent residents and have changed Turkey's social fabric.
"A huge amount of them will not go back," he says. "The ones who are guests in our country will become citizens of our country in the future."
It's an explosive topic, as Turks believe Syrians compete for jobs and services and blame refugees for what they see as a rise in crime.
But Yucel points to a bigger danger. He says refugees left to languish without education or mobility will be a problem for Turkey and the region. He points to examples in Europe, where marginalized populations are easy recruits for extremists.
"We need to invest in their education and we need to invest in gaining them some skills," he says.
Yucel has a successful track record. As head of the Bahcesehir Education Group, he's made a fortune opening private universities in Turkey with seven international campuses, including one in Washington, D.C. He runs a chain of private K-12 schools — college prep academies — with 30,000 Turkish students.
This spring, Yucel sent his team to Reyhanli to meet with representatives of the Syrian community. It was a packed house in a hotel banquet hall. Most at the meeting say they were professors or teachers at a university in Syria.
They are part of a larger group of academics, more than 400 in Turkey, who have not worked since they fled Syria. A list of their wasted credentials shows another hidden cost of war. They know their children are doomed to downward mobility if educational opportunities are lost. Turkey's state colleges accept refugees, but only 2 percent of those eligible have enrolled.
"There is a big barrier — that is language, Turkish language," says Zaafer Seiba, adding that many also cannot pay the fees.
Seiba, a professor at Aleppo University before the war, wants to know about the proposed fields of study: "What about the scientific, like medicine, dentistry, pharmacy and engineering?"
These are the skills Syrians will need to rebuild their country, but that's a long way off. He then poses a more immediate question.
"Is it possible for the graduates of this university to work in Turkey?"
In other words: Will Syrians be able to compete for opportunities in Turkey in a long-term stay?
For now, the answers are on hold. Even as NPR reported this story, the college project stalled because of pushback from the Turkish public — which is wary of incentive for refugees — and delays in international financial support.
"There is a lot of nationalist backlash," says Turkish analyst Gonul Tol, who heads the Center for Turkish Studies at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. "Turkey is not culturally or socially a country prepared to integrate so many immigrants."
The polarization is pushing Syrian Arab residents into a parallel society: an isolated, marginalized underclass that will end up, Tol says, "cleaning Turkish family bathrooms and babysitting their children."
Educational opportunities can change the equation, she says, for Syrians who are now a majority in some border towns.
"You have to do something to destroy that sense of victimhood," she says.
As Syria enters a fifth year of conflict, the early worries about the disappearance of national borders have subsided — the borders didn't move. But the people did, changing Turkey's demographics.
"Turkey's social fabric has changed forever, and the Turks have to come to terms with this reality very soon," says Tol.
These young Syrians now are likely to spend a lifetime in Turkey, and so far their prospects for their future are dim.
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
We are learning this morning about an immigrant community trying to advance in a new country in need of resources, including a quality education. The community is Syrian refugees living in Turkey. The possibility of millions putting down roots has caused tensions. But the reality that many of these Syrians are missing out on a college education because of a war has captured the attention of a Turkish educator who wants to create a university system for refugees. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL GROUP: (Singing in foreign language).
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Enver Yucel has a track record in education, the head of the Bahcesehir Educational Group. And he's made a fortune opening private universities, this one in the heart of Istanbul - six more across the globe.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL BOUNCING)
AMOS: He also runs a chain of private K-12 schools, college prep academies with 30,000 Turkish students. Now he aims to educate Syrian refugees. With college campuses along the Turkish border, he's pledged $10 million of his own to get started. He wants international donors to pitch in, and his reasons are straightforward.
ENVER YUCEL: (Through Interpreter) Yes. A huge amount of them, percentage of them, will not be going back to their country.
AMOS: He says out loud what Turkish officials don't want to acknowledge. The majority of the 2 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey are not going home anytime soon. It's an explosive topic as Turks see Syrians as competition for jobs and services, blame them for rising crime. But Yucel sees a bigger danger. He says refugees left to languish without education or mobility are a problem for Turkey and the region. For one, they'll be easy recruits for extremists.
YUCEL: (Through Interpreter) We need to invest on their education. And we need to invest in gaining them some skills.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Thank you so much.
AMOS: We're now in Reyhanli, a sleepy Turkish border town before the war. These days, Reyhanli is bursting with Syrians, many of them school-age. Yucel has sent his team here for a meeting in a hotel banquet hall. Filiz Dag, from the college project, leads the discussion.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
FILIZ DAG: It is OK - right? - if I speak in English... Yes?
AMOS: These Syrians have already heard about plans to open a university for refugees, a curriculum in Arabic and English, with Syrian professors as part of the staff. I want to know who's in the room, these refugees dressed in their best suits and heels.
How many people in the room are professors or taught at university in Syria?
AMOS: The hands shoot up.
Oh, wow. OK, quite - quite a few of you.
They're part of a larger group of academics here, more than 400 in Turkey who haven't worked since they fled Syria.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Master in Web science.
AMOS: Web science...
ZAFER SEIBA: Linguistics.
It's a long list of wasted credentials, another hidden cost of the war. They know their children are doomed to downward mobility if education opportunities are lost. The numbers are striking for university-eligible students, about 40,000 in Turkey in college or college-bound before the war. So far, attempts to continue university studies in Turkey have largely been a failure.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
DAG: You are living the situation. So what could be the possible solutions?
AMOS: Turkey's state schools accept refugees, but few have enrolled. Most Syrians don't speak Turkish, and they can't afford the language classes.
SEIBA: I guess, like, there is a big barrier; that is language, Turkish language.
AMOS: Syrian Zafer Seiba, a linguistics professor before the war, translates for the group. They want to know about scholarships. But more important, what are the fields of study?
SEIBA: What about the scientific branches, like medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering and this kind of stuff?
AMOS: Then he asks the question that's on everyone's mind.
SEIBA: Is it possible for the graduates of this university to work in Turkey?
AMOS: It's a critical question. Will Syrians ever be able to compete for opportunities in Turkey in a long-term stay? So far, the answers are on hold. Even as we reported this story, the project stalled - pushback from the Turkish public, pledges of support from the U.N.; international donors are delayed. Plus, there are more pressing priorities, food and shelter. But Turkish analyst Gonul Tol says higher education is not a luxury. She says over time, Syrian Arabs will see themselves as an isolated underclass in Turkey.
GONUL TOL: Because we are Arabs, no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, how smart we are, we will always end up cleaning the Turkish family's bathroom. We really have to destroy that sense of victimhood.
AMOS: Tol heads the Turkish study Center at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
TOL: I think Turkey's social fabric has changed forever. And the Turks, they have to come to terms with this reality very soon because more and more of them, they find themselves neighbors to Syrian a Syrian family.
AMOS: Walk through any Turkish border town, and you're likely to hear more Arabic than Turkish these days. Young Syrians are now likely to spend a lifetime in Turkey. And so far, prospects for their future are dim. Deborah Amos, NPR News, Reyhanli. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.