From Syria to Turkey to Montreal

One Syrian Student’s Story About Why He’s Coming to Canada

Children at Al Salam in Reyhanli, Turkey. Photo Kenza Ben Azouz
A mural in the school’s courtyard. Photo Kenza Ben Azouz

Mouhammad Sarhan laughs as the Skype connection finally establishes into a laggy state. It’s 2 p.m. in Reyhanli, Turkey and the 19-year-old is preparing for his English lesson that begins in an hour.

Concordia University recently announced it would sponsor two Syrian students to study at its Montreal campus. Sarhan is one of the two. As part of the Montreal-run Syrian Kids Foundation (SKF), he will receive a scholarship for one year, with the possibility of renewal afterwards.

“Whatever we can do as an institution is pretty modest,” says Concordia President Alan Shepard. “The initiative is a goodwill gesture for a community that is really struggling.”

Growing up in Idlib and later moving to Harem, Sarhan was forced to leave Syria after his school was destroyed.

In Syria, even before the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, schooling for Sarhan was not easy. He claims the education system was largely corrupt and most of his teachers were not qualified to teach, having received their jobs for sectarian or political reasons.

After moving across the border to Turkey, Sarhan encountered more problems. At the first school he enrolled in, he says that staff hired to mark his grade 12 Baccalaureate exam was not qualified, making many mistakes and taking bribes from students’ families in exchange for good grades.

Eventually, he enrolled at Al Salam in Reyhanli, Turkey—a school created in 2012 by a Syrian-Canadian diaspora living in Montreal—where he was able to complete his Baccalaureate and take classes to improve his English and prepare for a proficiency test on English as a foreign language.

Sarhan is one of the school’s most focused students and was highly recommended by his teachers, according to Faisal Alazem, executive director at the SKF and spokesperson of the Syrian Canadian Council.  

“My dream is to be a computer engineer; to use science and technology to rebuild my hometown,” Sarhan says when asked what he would like to study at Concordia. He laughs and says he was a little intimidated to find out how many different computer science programs were offered, hoping he registered for the correct one.

Concordia is the only Canadian school to have reached out to the SKF for this opportunity. Like in Syria, refugee students who graduate secondary school in neighbouring countries such as Turkey or Lebanon also face problems continuing their education.

“You have the problem of eligibility, where not all Turkish schools recognize the education of these children,” Alazem says.

In an effort to solve this problem, the Turkish government instituted an equivalency test for Syrian students allowing them to enroll in Turkish universities. So far 80 students from Al Salam have passed the test. However, they still face issues dealing with the language barrier—most universities teach in Turkish, a language most Syrian students are not fluent in.

To help students who haven’t been able to continue their education after secondary school, SKF offers some of their alumni employment opportunities at the school. However, with a limited budget based solely on private donations, the initiative hasn’t been able to flourish.

“It hasn’t been easy to fundraise for Syria, it’s been very difficult,” Alazem says. “It started getting better here, in Canada, after that picture of the little boy that drowned on the coast of Turkey went viral. People started getting more engaged, more volunteers, people started donating more.

“Recently we’ve started seeing a shift in public opinion that’s being reflected in help and donations, but there is much more that needs to be done,” he adds.

Bake sales are held in the Hall building’s mezzanine every Friday and SKF is looking for more volunteers to help raise awareness and funding. Requests for government funding of the project has thus far been denied.

Continued escalation of force in Syria has put more pressure on the organization. Geopolitical powers such as Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah continue to reinforce Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces, with militants like the so-called Islamic State, the al-Nusra Front and various rebel forces fighting for control in the country.

According to Alazem, some former teachers have returned to Syria to be with their families, only to find conditions in worse shape than when they left.

“They’re in constant contact with us and the students, via Skype and the Internet,” he says. “They tell us that Russian planes are bombarding the areas that they live in. They’re telling everyone ‘Don’t come back.’”

“It’s added pressure on us. That idea of returning to a safe and civil Syria is really diminishing every single day,” he says.

Responsibility falls on the organizers of the SKF to ensure that schools like theirs continue to exist and thrive. They want to reach a point where Syrian children are no longer told there is no space for them, Alazem says.

Batool Altaweel, a student at Al Salam. Photo Kenza Ben Azouz.

Batool Altaweel is another student studying at Al Salam. She is 16 years old and has been at the school for over a year. She smiles and speaks excitedly as she talks of her former life in Syria over Skype.

“I was living in Homs when the revolution started, but when the situation got worse we moved to the countryside,” she says.

Growing up, her father was a judge under the al-Assad regime. The regime threatened him for not agreeing with their views that the Syrians demanding a new government were terrorists. Altaweel and her family had to leave Homs for Damascus and eventually arrived in Palmyra, where they lived for a year. As the situation in Syria grew worse, her father defected from the regime, forcing the family to leave the country.

“The situation was unbearable. There was not any justice,” she says. “Some people helped us to go to Al Raqqa, where we stayed five days [before going to] to Turkey.”

She is currently preparing for her TOEFL at Al Salam, while also studying her 11th grade Syrian school curriculum. She would like to study in Canada or abroad one day. According to Altaweel, her parents would like her to take up medicine and become a doctor, but she hopes one day to become a journalist.