In my last article from March 26, I began to describe the plight of Syrian refugees and how key members of this displaced community have formed their own educational system in Antakya, Turkey.
As previously mentioned, most Syrian refugee children have little or no access to a formal education in Turkey, but volunteers in Antakya have mobilized and acquired four buildings, which they now use to provide educational instruction to over 2,000 local Syrian children ranging in age from 4 -17.
Most Syrians living outside of the refugee camps in Turkey live well below the country’s poverty line, and this has led to the exploitation of their children as laborers and street peddlers. On any given day in Turkey’s major cities, one can easily find hundreds of school children begging on the streets or working illegally for unscrupulous business owners for little and oftentimes no wages. Seeking to protect their children from exploitation, families in Antakya enroll them into the school system created by their own community.
Unfortunately, many of these families cannot provide basic items, such as clothes, shoes, book bags, pencils and pens. One organization that works directly with the families and schools is the Free Syria Agency for Rescue (FSAR), which was founded in 2012 by Syrian refugees. FSAR receives supplies mostly from Europe and Middle Eastern countries, and distributes them to the schools.
One such person working with FSAR is Talal Shawar.
Shawar is a 37-year-old former middle school instructor who prior to the Syrian Civil War, was a respected educator, and leading figure in his neighborhood.
He fled his hometown of Idlib, Syria, in 2012 after being tortured for months by the internal security forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al Assad. Traumatized, Talal has chosen not to continue his role as an educator, but works instead as a volunteer who helps coordinate the distribution of all supplies to the children.
During my time in Antakya, Shawar underwent surgery to have his hip, which was irreparably damaged during his torture, replaced at a Turkish hospital.
Shawar, who has suffered more personal tragedy than most human beings, epitomizes the strength and resilience of the Syrian people. Despite all of his hardship he continues to strive to protect and educate the school children of Antakya, by any means necessary.
Personally witnessing the resilience to so much globally unrecognized strife and tragedy, only fortified my commitment to providing a resource of healing through art to a community that needs it. I would spend my time in Antakya visiting families, children and elders of the “new” Syrians of Turkey to gather and develop deeper bonds between the community and myself.
I was allowed full access to one of the four schools in Antakya, in order to paint murals to raise awareness of this community and its endeavors. Through these murals, I would become part of a worldwide effort of countless volunteers who are raising the awareness of the 21st century’s first diaspora: The Syrian Diaspora.
Amos Gregory is a U.S military veteran, visual artist and activist.
Story by: Amos Gregory