Reyhanli, Turkey — Early in the morning and late at night, sounds of shelling from across the mountain disrupt the seemingly tranquil border town.
“If you’d been here a few nights earlier, when the Russians were bombing, you would have felt the whole ground shake,” Waled Dabak tells me inside his Reyhanli home. “The entire city felt it.”
Located only a few miles away from the Syrian border, the small town’s population has more than doubled in size as widespread violence and aerial bombardments continue to push Syrians into Turkey.
39-year-old Dabbak moved to Reyhanli in 2013. Despite being a member of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, he faced persecution in Damascus for his work supporting internally displaced families from the war. At least 50 Red Crescent volunteers have been killed in the Syrian conflict, including one of Dabak’s brothers, who was detained and tortured to death by the regime. When his other brother – also a volunteer – was detained, the former trainer and aid worker first fled to Lebanon, and then moved to Istanbul. He quit his job with an opposition-aligned NGO one month later.
“I love field work. I can’t sit behind a desk and laptop,” Dabak said.
For several months he would cross the border daily into Atmeh Camp, home to approximately 30,000 internally displaced people, conducting research for development projects. Working for a while with an NGO based near the border, Dabak used his 11 years of experience with the Red Crescent to train Syrian youth here in psychosocial support, first aid, and disaster management.
Walking around the small town, Dabak began to notice the increasing phenomenon of Syrian children begging on the streets.
“I would pass by them everyday and just talk with them, be their friend,” said Dabak. “I’d invite them to eat with me, and we’d read a little after lunch.”
No lesson would last more than 30 minutes, and soon the children started to bring their friends. What started as a personal project teaching eight children to read and write in 2014 grew into a small center supporting 80 children today, funded by Syrian expatriates. Named the Tulip Center for Child Care and Rehabilitation, Dabak currently has ten people on staff, including five teachers.
Even Dabak admits that the children’s commitment to attending the center was a surprise at first, since many of them had been cut off from school for so long. Others were too young for school when the conflict started, and have never received formal education. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, at least 400,000 Syrian refugee children in Turkey are not attending school.
“I guess, first of all, the food was good,” said Dabak laughing. “But also the location is very green, we have no gates, and we’re flexible with the children. We don’t yell at them if they’re late, because we know they all have difficult situations and many are working. We don’t act like teachers, we treat them like friends.”
Laurel and olive trees surround the two tents and one room that serve as classrooms, and cast iron stoves in each keep everyone warm. Lodged on the foot of the mountain, the center opens out into the fields and neighboring park, and Dabak and his family live in the flat above. Operating five days a week from noon till 4 pm, the Tulip Center for Child Care and Rehab offers underprivileged children classes in several subjects including English, Arabic, and Turkish. Many of the children who first attended are now qualified enough to attend regular schools, said Dabak, but still go to the center.
“It’s about trust, if the children do not trust you they will not learn anything from you,” said Dabak, noting that many of the children at Tulip had been illiterate, and had displayed forms of aggression. “Most of them have experienced shelling, and others have escaped besieged areas.”
Dabak’s initiative has not completely solved the problem of children begging on the streets of Reyhanli, but it has achieved more success then several attempts by the police, and was welcomed by the municipality. Many of these children’s families had received threats of being deported back to Syria if they did not stop begging.
“It’s a problem if we don’t embrace these children into our community. There needs to be social solidarity,” Dabak said.
Besides cooking lunch, the center provides the children with clothes and stationery and raises awareness on hygiene. Dabak pointed out that while some of the newer students are well-off, others used to beg on the streets. Many still work in the fields or do odd jobs to support their families. His goal is to make sure they get an education, and stop begging.
“These children are heroes, and I don’t say that jokingly,” said Dabak.
Many of the children’s parents are laborers and some are unemployed. Others were killed in Syria. A few years ago Reyhanli was a hub for aid organizations, but most have moved to other Turkish cities, said Dabak, citing security concerns.
“Many NGOs consider Reyhanli to be too dangerous and refuse to work here,” said Dabak. “But there are more than 100,000 Syrians, here, who’s going to support them?”
For Dabak, moving is not a question, not least because of his attachment to the project. Perhaps part of the reason, he said, is that he knows on a personal level what it’s like to work as a child to support your family. As a child in Damascus, Dabak would work on a bike in the old market moving merchandise, or guiding tourists.
“Don’t underestimate a child who grew up working by a traffic light. He is a diplomat, and knows how to deal with all different kinds of people just to get a few pounds out of them,” said Dabak. “These kids know how to speak Turkish, English, and Arabic. If they get an education, they can really become something in the future, because they understand how life works and how to deal with different people.”
Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati