In south-eastern Turkey, the life-changing trauma of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes have cast a long shadow over the new school year

In south-eastern Turkey, the life-changing trauma of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes have cast a long shadow over the new school year

According to the United Nations Population Fund, 2.5 million children in Turkey are in need of humanitarian assistance and psychosocial support following the devastating earthquakes that killed more than 50,000 people across the Turkey-Syria border this February.

(Michele Burgess/Alamy)

The bell rang at 8.30am sharp on 11 September 2023 at the Lions İlkokulu
Elementary School in Gaziantep, a major city in south-eastern Turkey on the Syrian border.

Pupils from the second grade up seemed excited to go back to class after a long summer break, but the six-year-olds approaching the school buildings for the first time looked anxious and nervous.

“I was worried about whether to send my son Eymen to school, because aftershocks continue from time to time,” said 42-year-old Ayse, as she walked her son to the school gate on his first day of school. “But when it was determined that the school building was solid and with the psychological support of Eymen’s teacher, I took the risk. I actually hope my son will overcome his fear of earthquakes thanks to school.”

For children in this city of two million residents – many of which are Syrian refugees – the beginning of this new academic year was unlike any other. On 6 February, a duo of 7.8-magnitude and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes rocked through the Turkish-Syrian border, leaving more than 50,000 people dead and causing an estimated US$34 billion worth of damage.

On the Turkish side of the border alone, almost two million people in 11 provinces were displaced by the disaster – the deadliest in Turkey’s modern history. Almost eight months after the tragedy many people still live in makeshift tents and containers.

The Turkish Ministry of National Education – with support from the World Bank, the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery and the European Union – built 57 earthquake-proof schools since 2017, 24 of which are located in areas affected by the February 2023 earthquakes; they all withstood the disaster.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, most of them were used as temporary shelters to house people with no homes, and in several areas – particularly rural villages – classes faced prolonged suspension.

“In late January, students had been out of class for a couple of weeks. That’s our usual winter break in Turkey,” explains Yusuf Bitir, a third-grade teacher at Lions İlkokulu, which has about 800 students and is located in the north-west of Gaziantep. “The sixth of February was the Monday that students were set to go back to classes after the winter vacation, but over the course of just one night, our lives changed forever.”

Although Bitir’s school building did not incur any major damage, classes were suspended for over six weeks, making it the longest amount of time that Turkish children have been out of school since the coronavirus pandemic. While all universities across the country resorted to online classes until the end of the school year following the tragedy, mandatory education was suspended in five of the 11 hit provinces.

As a result, children saw their lives disrupted and the loss of their daily routines had a major impact on their psychological wellbeing. Humanitarian organisations warned that children are the age group worst affected in the aftermath of an earthquake. According to the United Nations Population Fund, 2.5 million children in Turkey are in need of humanitarian assistance and psychosocial support. Incidents of bullying and self-harm in minors have been increasing, and threats to literacy rates in a region with high dropout rates, even before the disaster, are worrying experts.

Zeynep Bahadir, an Istanbul-based clinical psychologist specialising in post-disaster trauma, warns that the psychological effects of such a catastrophe on children vary depending on their age. “Those who were leading a normal life, going to school and making friends there, now feel angry and confused,” Bahadir explains. “Toddlers between two and six years old, whose brains are not fully developed yet, are likely more fearful of their surroundings and will anxiously attach to their parents, not wanting to leave their side.”

Education as a palliative measure

In the weeks following the disaster, children saw their whole lives disrupted, living and going to improvised schools in tented settlements. “It completely changed the way children were being taught,” says Yara al-Ashtar, an aid worker from the International Network for Aid, Relief and Assistance (INARA) in charge of psychological assessment for people displaced in tented camps in Hatay and Kahramanmaras, the provinces hardest hit by the destruction. “Education in those settings was just a palliative, because it was offered for just a couple of hours a day and more as an opportunity for play rather than as real education. Children were taught by humanitarian workers or psychotherapists, which didn’t let them catch up on learning gaps,” she adds.

Bitir says that the few schools that opened back in April tried to focus not on teaching, but on helping children overcome their fear of further quakes first. “I think it was more important to build their confidence, even though that slowed down our school curriculum goals,” says Bitir. “But it was necessary to make children feel more at ease, particularly those who had never been to school, and also for ourselves as teachers to overcome our own fears.”

Sare, 9, was set to return to Lions İlkokulu on the morning of 6 February, when at 4.17am she, as well as her parents and three sisters, were shaken awake by the tremors. “I was afraid, I couldn’t understand what was going on. I just grabbed my doll and held it tight,” she explains.

The four daughters of the family were already traumatised, as their grandfather had died just two weeks before. For a while Sare’s family was displaced in another city, where they took temporary refuge to stay away from the continuous aftershocks. She returned to school in May for a few weeks. This September her youngest sister entered first grade. She’s particularly scared, she’s worried new aftershocks might happen while she’s in the classroom, away from her parents. But her family, including Sare, have been trying to encourage her.

Bitir, who teaches Sare’s class, is happy about the turnout for the start of the new academic year earlier this month. He and his colleagues were in touch with parents before the start of classes, and decorated the class to help children feel at home.

“Many children began their first ever day of school inside containers. My students are lucky because they had a school building to go back to,” Bitir says.

Teaching and learning through the trauma

Going back to school is not only hard for children, but also for teachers. Some have endured immense psychological trauma. Mehmet Bezgin, 28, is a middle school maths teacher from Gaziantep who teaches in Pazarcik, one of the hardest-hit villages in the Kahramanmaras province. That morning he lost his house, his school and some of his students.

“I was lucky I wasn’t there. In Pazarcik, the reopening of school after the winter break was postponed because of the heavy snowfall,” he recalls. Despite the trauma, he thinks teachers must be ready to put their own troubles aside to help children overcome their fears and get back on track with their studies.

But if the September return to school went relatively smoothly for Turkish children, for Syrian refugee children it was much more complicated. The 11 south-eastern provinces of Turkey host almost two million of the 3.7 million Syrians who have settled in Turkey since the beginning of the conflict.

Many of them are children. “Syrian children in the earthquake area have experienced the double trauma of being displaced twice in their young lives: first because of a conflict, then a natural disaster in their country of safety,” Bahadir explains.

She adds that this will have huge consequences on their early development, “because they already bear the burden of a previous displacement in a host country, and fewer opportunities to access the local education system”.

In the halls of Kids Rainbow, an NGO providing after-school activities for Syrian refugees in Gaziantep, the back-to-class atmosphere seems to temporarily cheer up the 100 or so children running around its premises.

During the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the centre – which was spared any damage – offered recreational activities for children, as well as psychological support sessions for parents. “The situation worsened after the earthquake, due to some schools being damaged and not accommodating all students, so priority was given to Turkish children,” explains Mustafa Kara Ali, who runs Kids Rainbow.

Some 20 per cent of their normal students were displaced to other provinces. The number of children registered on their waiting list has jumped to 300 children, double the number in 2022. “We try to help them as we can, but it’s hard to fill such a huge educational gap after years of neglect by institutions.”

This story was supported by an Early Childhood Global Reporting fellowship from the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia Journalism School.