A tale of two cities: how education trumps war in Chicago and Reyhanli

This map, hanging in GirlForward's program center in Edgewater, shows Chicago connected to each refugee girl's home country. (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)

By Aryn Braun

“There are lots of Syrians in Chicago like me, second-generation Syrians,” says Samia Akhras, 24, of Chicago’s growing Syrian Community.

But Chicago isn’t home. Chicago isn’t Syria.

Syrian-Americans, like Akhras and her family, are constantly reminded of the violence and upheaval that is everyday life in the Syrian Arab Republic. Akhras’ voice, normally lilting with enthusiasm, is grave and quiet when she talks about Syria’s constant turmoil and the danger her family members still face back in the Middle East.

“It was and it still is, really brutal,” Akhras says. “Every couple of months, every major event, I always think ‘That’s the worst thing that could ever happen. What could be worse?’ Then a couple months later a chemical weapon gets dropped, or a school gets bombed by Russia and ISIS is now in control of several cities throughout Syria.

“So it’s just never-ending pain.”

Starting Feb. 27, the United States and Russia will enter into a ceasefire in Syria. Announced by Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month, the ceasefire is an attempt to halt the pervasive violence of the past five years, which, according to the United Nations, has resulted in the deaths of at least 250,000 Syrians and displaced 12 million more.

Faced with the reality of a deteriorating Syrian state, and the frustration of feeling helpless to support her country through whatever comes next, Akhras turned to the non-profit sector. In 2014, she began interning at the Karam Foundation, run by fellow Chicagoan and Syrian-American, Lina Sergie Attar.

Started in 2007 out of Attar’s Chicago home, the Karam Foundation originally set out to fund human rights projects all over the world, but switched gears in 2011 to focus specifically on Syria as the conflict worsened.

Today the foundation places a huge emphasis on education, and what access to good schools can mean for children displaced by the conflict. That’s where Akhras comes in.

In her two and a half years with the Foundation, Akhras—now director of development—has been to Turkey twice, participating in Karam’s well-known Zeitouna program. Zeitouna, which means olive tree in Arabic, tries to live up to its name, bringing 40 volunteers from all over the world to Reyhanli (Ray-HAN-lee), Turkey, at least once a year to facilitate educational programming in local primary schools.

Reyhanli is a border town, situated roughly three miles from the Syrian border. According to Akhras, it’s home to nearly 60,000 Syrians searching for an alternative to the violence they’ve become used to. Through Zeitouna and the Karam Leadership Program, geared toward Syrian teenagers, Akhras and her peers try to help children work through any trauma they’ve experienced while providing them with an outlet to just be kids.

“I’ve been following the cause for a very long time. I know what these people have been through,” Akhras says. “I know what these children have been though, and after five years a lot of them don’t even remember Syria.”

“The only things that they remember are really loud sounds, bombs, and they remember fleeing and that’s it. They don’t remember the happiness, or they don’t remember the memories that they had in their hometown, or the schools that’s they went to or the way that they lived before.”

In May of 2013, Reyhanli was rocked by two deadly car bombings within 15 minutes of each other. The blasts killed more than 50 and wounded close to 150 more, straining the already combative relationship between the Turkish government and the Assad regime.

Akhras’ voice tightened. It got harder for her to string a sentence together. She paused, took a breath and steadied herself: “These children, they re-establish my goals and my hope,” she says, laughing between words. “You know, I’m really bad at describing the way I feel.”

Out of school adolescents in Syria (Ages 10 to 14)

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The number of out of school adolescents increased 485 percent from 2012 to 2013 to close to one million children. Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)

In 2013 there were close to one million Syrian adolescents, ages 10 to 14, out of school. That’s up nearly 485 percent from 2012, according to UNESCO. Without the most recent data, there’s no telling how high that number is in 2016. Many factors contribute to falling enrollment rates: displacement, lack of funding and especially gender.

“Our mission, The Karam Foundation, we can’t solve the situation, but we can alleviate the pain for the people who have lost literally everything and help them pick up their lives,” Akhras says.

And while Karam finds ways to help Syrian children in Turkish schools, GirlFoward, a Chicago organization devoted to helping assimilate refugee girls, aids families who have made the journey to the U.S. in their attempts to start over.

Ashley Marine, GirlForward’s program director, shares Akhras’ concerns about refugee children falling behind in school, especially young girls.

“Our girls have had limited access to education,” Marine says. “At one point at GirlForward, this was last summer’s poll, the average amount of time spent in schools was two years before coming to the United States, and these are girls who are 14 or 15 years old. So they’ve had two years of formal schooling before coming here and entering into a ninth-grade classroom.”

GirlForward mentors and mentees at a Feb. 18 screening of Difret, a film about a kidnapped Ethiopian girl facing forced marriage, hosted by Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. (Hannah Gebresilassie/MEDILL)

Marine is constantly interrupted by interns coming in early to help set up for that night’s event, or girls dropping by to start on that day’s homework.

“Can we pause for a second?” Marine asks, distracted by someone tapping at the window.

It’s a woman who heard about a fire that drove a newly arrived Syrian refugee family out of their Rogers Park apartment. She came by to drop off a gift card so the family can replace some of their lost belongings. There are heaps of blankets and clothing on a desk nearby. Marine points to the mound of fabric. It’s also for the family, donations from Chicagoans who heard about the fire.

Of the 100 girls GirlFoward serves in its annual programming, most hail from Iraq, Bhutan, Burma, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but Syrian numbers are growing as more families are resettled in Chicago. Illinois’ refugee population is largely from those same six countries, with 45 Syrian refugees resettled in the state in the past four months, according to the State Department’s Refugee Processing Center.

“We’ve only resettled a nominal number of Syrian families here in the city of Chicago so far. That will change,” Marine says. I think the small number of Middle Eastern girls we serve is not a testament to the numbers of people. We’re disproportionately serving Middle Eastern girls at a lower number, at a lower rate, and we’re starting to ask why.”

GirlForward’s mentees graduate from the program when they graduate from high school, a feat worth celebrating for girls who may come to Chicago without friends, English-language skills or time to devote to their studies.

Marine continually emphasizes how important the social aspect of schooling is to assimilating teenage girls to a new country. According to Marine, who holds a master’s degree in social service administration from the University of Chicago, it’s the isolation that is most dangerous to academic and social development.

“If they’re the oldest girl in the family they are going to be responsible for cooking, for cleaning, for caregiving of their siblings, for translating for their parents,” Marine says. “Those activities are keeping them in their house, so accessing programs outside of their homes can be very challenging for refugee girls.

“Many of them are watching their siblings 24/7 while their parents are working two or three jobs to support their families,” Marine says. “So that increases their isolation.”

Though Akhras and Marine focus on different populations of students, both view education as key to a successful future for Syrian refugees, whether that’s in Reyhanli, Turkey or Chicago, Illinois.

“They’re children. They’re innocent and very, very bright kids that need extra support,” says a joyful-sounding Akhras. “They need a little bit more love.”

Photo at top: This map, hanging on the wall of GirlForward’s program center in Edgewater, shows Chicago connected by string to each refugee girl’s home country. (Aryn Braun/MEDILL)