When Faud al-Shiekh Sanaa, a gaunt master teacher from Aleppo, made his way to Turkey with throngs of other refugees from Syria in July 2012, he immediately set about registering children for school. Classes back home would have started in September, and there was little time to waste.

As Sanaa’s list climbed to 1,200 names, he wrote to local authorities for help. There was need, but no space available in the Turkish schools in Kilis, the border city where the children had landed.

By November, with backing from international and Turkish charities, Kilis’s governor, Süleyman Tapsız, presided over the opening of the “Culture Center for Syrians.”

Now, Principal Sanaa’s center teaches 2,000 Syrian children. Students attend in three shifts, each no longer than three and a half hours.

The arrangement works—as long as the center is not called a school and its students are not called refugees.  Its survival hinges on the kindness of local officials, as Turkey grants the Syrians “temporary protection,” but not refugee status.

“Syrians are not legally allowed education here in Turkey,” Sanaa said. Although classes are teeming with up to 70 students, Sanaa counts himself lucky. The leadership in Kilis is unusually generous towards Syrians.  “The Turks turn a blind eye. They give us everything we ask for.”

But in distant Istanbul, where buildings and land are scarce, goodwill doesn’t stretch as far. Syrian-run centers there get little support. Principals resort to letter writing campaigns to pay the rent. Financial strains can lead to mismanagement, delays in teacher payroll, and tuition hikes.

Amal Shaban, an educator from Damascus, turned a rundown four-story building reminiscent of a New York tenement into a school for 250 students.  The Message of Light Center stands in the garment district of a busy downtown neighborhood. Just the same, Shaban had to turn away over a thousand students who couldn’t pay fees last year.

Teachers lack textbooks for some courses, and students often can’t afford the photocopies. During a visit there, Shaban offered a visitor a juice box, given by the municipality. Because Syrians don’t have the right to education in Turkey, she takes any small gesture from the government as a gift.

By most measures, Turkey has been generous to the 1.36 million Syrians who fled there from the civil war to the south. The country hosts over a quarter of all Syrian refugees. It does so with far less foreign aid than its neighbors, meaning Turkish taxpayers shoulder a disproportionate cost for responding to the crisis.

Yet Syrians in Turkey are labeled as guests of the state, not refugees. The lack of refugee status hinders outside oversight and assistance, and deprives the Syrians of rights guaranteed under international conventions. These agreements give refugee children the right to education, and their parents the right to work.

Some 325,000 Syrian youngsters are out of school in Turkey. The Syrian opposition government’s education minister says they represent a “lost generation” in danger of becoming a “mafia of terrorists, drug dealers, and thieves.”

With their status so precarious, Syrians in Turkey cannot easily advocate or organize.  Because most Syrians cannot work legally, poverty and exploitation are rampant.

“We don’t know the language of rights,” said Abdul, a Syrian father whose brother was killed in a demonstration in Homs. “There were no rights in Syria.”

Turkey’s Hospitality

As a backer of the Syrian opposition, Turkey was quick to support fleeing Syrians. The Ankara government opened its borders to Syrians when the revolution turned violent in April of 2011. Its magnanimity promoted Turkey’s image as a prominent and capable regional power.

Turkey created 22 state-of-the art camps to host 220,000 Syrians in border areas.  There, the newcomers receive health care and access to education. In camps, 93 percent of children are enrolled in school. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie have visited and praised these camps.

Muhammad Maari, a 26-year-old English teacher in Akçakale Camp on the Syrian border says that Turkish officials “always try to help us.” Maari fled Syria in March 2013 when he was conscripted for Bashar al-Assad’s army. Now, he teaches in a row of tents that serves as an education center. Some 8,000 children cram into the tents each day, split into separate shifts for elementary, middle and high school classes. The government provides desks, white boards, and notebooks. Maari lacked some textbooks this year but he made do with photocopies of books smuggled from Syria.

Yet Syrians are routinely turned away from camps, given limited capacity. Anna Shea, legal advisor on refugee and migrant rights at Amnesty International, said she found over a hundred people waiting outside the camp at Akçakale, hoping to get in, when she visited. Some had been there 45 days without cover from the scorching sun. At night they slept with their children on cracked earth, she said.

Contain and Control

Alongside its generosity, however, Turkey’s government has kept tight control over its response to the refugees. Security concerns and an underlying mistrust of foreign actors have fueled Turkey’s hesitation to work with partners, and limited the access of outsiders to Syrian children.

It took almost two years for the Ankara government to grant UN agencies access to the camps. Only at the end of 2012 did UNICEF begin planning to support work on education in camps.

Because five out of six Syrians in Turkey live outside of camps, UNICEF also advocated for services outside camps. In 2014, the government finally approved the construction of 50 schools, but restricted them to ten southern provinces.

Now the UN and advocacy groups in Turkey are pushing for more services in northern cities. The government prefers to concentrate Syrians in the south, but advocates estimate that 300,000 Syrians live in Istanbul alone.

Sema Genel, executive director of Support to Life, a Turkish nongovernmental organization (NGO), says that authorities discourage her and other organizations from providing services to Syrian children in Istanbul. The country’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD), which oversees refugee policies, has proposed the more drastic measures of moving people into border areas and camps. Genel says that Syrians need help where they are. “There is serious mistrust between the government and the NGOs.  We need government consent and we don’t want to be on negative terms,” Genel said. Operating without government approval is risky: Officials could shut her nonprofit down.

“We don’t know the language of rights. There were no rights in Syria.” –Abdul, a Syrian father.  

Of Pride and Prejudice

In the absence of a large-scale government effort outside of the camps, Syrian-run centers providing education in Arabic have proliferated in Turkey. The number of centers is unknown – estimates range from 50 to 150. These centers educated approximately 40,000 Syrians last year.

Though it does not recognize them as schools, Turkey’s education ministry is now faced with regulating these unofficial education centers.  The ministry has announced plans to hire supervisors to guarantee facilities meet minimum standards or shut them down. Teachers at the centers will not earn salaries, but rather incentives worth as little as $100 per semester. Educators without regular salaries often have to look for work on the side, even if it means disrupting their teaching calendar.

Last year, 8,000 Syrians with residence permits enrolled their children in Turkish schools, according to government figures. It’s a hard road for Syrians, especially those that don’t speak the language. In a bid to make it easier for children to enroll, Turkey is planning to waive the requirement that students have residency permits, but language remains a barrier.

Muhammad Mahmoud, once a real estate agent in Aleppo, fled to Istanbul at the end of 2012. There was no referral agency to help him. He found a Syrian-run educational center in the neighborhood for his 12-year-old daughter Sidra, but it cost $100 per month plus bus fare. It took until September of 2013 to learn from neighbors that Sidra could attend the nearby public school.

“The war has affected children more than adults,” Mahmoud said. “Time is passing and taking their youth.” The family lives in a narrow slice of an apartment in Istanbul’s Fatih district. With Mahmoud out of work, the family gets by on what his wife and daughter earn folding shopping bags at a small factory.

Sidra picked up some Turkish on the street but found it hard to follow the lessons. “There were no other Syrian children except for one Turkmen girl who spoke Turkish,” Sidra said. At school, Sidra dodged boys in the hallways who yelled, “Go back to Syria! When you arrived you brought problems.”

Two miles south, in a neighborhood near the waters of the Golden Horn, Terfa Mala, a Kurdish Syrian from the northern countryside of Syria, said that her eight-year-old son Yusuf was turned away at the local school because he didn’t speak Turkish.

Yusuf is too young to attend the public education centers that offer language courses to adults. He now wipes floors and shoulders in a barbershop from 8:30 a.m. until 11p.m., six days a week.

Maintaining Control, Losing Support

In protracted refugee crises, some governments provide language instruction, with a view to helping refugee children adapt to national education. For many Syrians, enrolling in Turkish school means formal education and a possible pipeline to college. Language is a barrier for many, however, and expanding language instruction is expensive.

Turkey has been hesitant to work with outside agencies on solutions. A Brookings Institution report found that Turkey threw up unnecessary roadblocks to nonprofit organizations that arrived hoping to assist in the crisis, instituting a cumbersome and opaque registration process. Ankara has responded to criticisms by allowing more NGOs to register, but few work on education.

If the education ministry were to spend half as much on students in temporary centers as they do on Syrians in Turkish schools, it would cost $180 million per year. The national education ministry hopes to rely on support from international donors, though it has no commitments in place.

Turkey’s management style has come under criticism from the nonprofit International Crisis Group, which cited donor concerns about how the country asks for money. Most foundations work through aid organizations, but Turkey prefers to channel assistance through national institutions. Seemingly as a point of pride, Turkey has also fueled the misperception that the country does not need help. It has focused international visitors’ attention on high quality camps, and has prevented UNICEF from assessing the number of children out of school.

Perhaps because of this, the efforts of UN agencies in Turkey to raise funds for the Syrian crisis have brought little success. In its 2014 regional appeal for support, the UN asked for $497 million and received only $103 million, or 21 percent. On average, UN agencies and partners in other countries hosting Syrians received 43 percent of their appeal.

Mazen Aboulhosn of the International Organization for Migration has heard staff at the Turkish education ministry say that, “They won’t waste time with small NGOs that have only $100,000 or $2 million to spend in the country.” Aboulhosn says, “It is beginning to change, but it is not the mentality that you usually see in an emergency situation.”

Education ministry officials told 100Reporters that they do not know which international non-profits are working to educate the Syrians who have fled war. In contrast, in Jordan, Syria’s neighbor to the south, UNICEF coordinates at least 18 international organizations supporting education.

Guests, not Refugees

While Turkey is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on Refugees, it is one of only four countries that restrict that convention so that only Europeans are considered refugees.

Hurşit Güneş, a lawmaker and former vice president of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said that Turkey’s interpretation “was meant to imply that Turkey was part of the West.” He argues for lifting the limitation on moral and practical grounds. The policy, he said, “is racist,” and deprives Turkey of international aid for refugees.

Instead, Turkey granted Syrians fleeing the war “temporary protection” status in 2012. This concept was loosely based on a European Union directive. But Turkey still has not given it a legal basis.

Last year, the Turkish government wrote the Law on Foreigners and Protection. Although it took four years to write, the law punted on temporary protection, saying it would be defined by a new agency in 2014. Once formed, that agency told advocates that Syrians’ rights will be defined separately by a Council of Ministers.

However, those rights remain undefined.

Metin Savaş, the Secretary-General of Kimse Yok Mu, one of Turkey’s largest humanitarian organizations, says that education for Syrians should be legal. In Turkey, “Laws do not allow us to give an education in Arabic,” so centers are not considered schools.

Meanwhile, amid unclear rights and policies, pressures are building. A slew of anti-Syrian protests and attacks are sweeping the country. Some Syrian children fear harassment when walking to and from school.

Recently, students at Gaziantep University, not far from the Syrian border, tried to hold a demonstration, but the university denied their petition to organize. Their message, said Fadi Kurdi, an English Literature student from Aleppo, was twofold: “We have a right to be here, just like you,” and also, “Thank you for having us.”

Photos by AFP/Getty Images