Published on Voices

Syrian refugee children’s smiles shine again in Istanbul

© World Bank

Nothing is more satisfying than putting a smile on a child’s face. It is especially true when the child has been a victim of war. 
The viral image of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi, whose dead body was quietly lying on the beach captivated us. Kurdi’s loss of the chance to flee to a safer life invigorated us to act. We decided to help refugee children adapt to their new lives when arriving in a new country.
And so, our team from the World Bank Youth Innovation Fund (YIF) partnered with Small Projects Istanbul (SPI), a Turkish non-profit organization, to help 20 Syrian children find some happiness and joy in Turkey after fleeing their war-torn country.
YIF provides an opportunity for young employees of the World Bank Group to design, implement and evaluate development projects in client countries focusing on innovation, efficiency and impact on development.
After submitting a proposal to the YIF Proposal Competition, and winning, our journey began. Our project, Turkish Language, Mentorship and Psychological Counseling Program, aimed to  support these children to effectively integrate with the local society, develop self-confidence, and have access to education while living in Turkey.

Building motivation and self-esteem

Drama Class. © World Bank
With SPI, we provided after-school and weekend Turkish classes for the Syrian children, as well as coordinating other enrichment activities like psychological counseling, mentoring programs, and outdoor playtime.
At SPI’s Community Education Center, the extracurricular activities were carefully designed to bring out the children’s curiosity and playful nature, while also enhancing their social skills and confidence. We also participated in musical workshops and theater role play with the children.
There, we met with Naz Saglam, a warm staff member at SPI who taught language classes. Everyday SPI implemented teaching or mentoring activities, she said, the children experienced something new that touched their hearts. It enabled them to build motivation and self-esteem, she added. The more the children became able to express themselves, the more hopeful they became.
“As a facilitator,” Saglam said, “We confronted and managed a range of emotions together, including learning to cope for the long-term. The sincerity we built during the project affected our overall relationship.”
Mentors ‘to make a difference’
Throughout the course of project design and implementation, SPI and YIF received continuous support from another project partner led by the high school students from Robert College as part of a mentorship component. The children and the students met monthly for a mentoring program, played together, and shared their ideas. The children felt cared for and learned much from their mentors, which left a positive impact on them.
“This [community involvement project] has been the best way for me to learn how to love someone just because he/she is a human being,” one student mentor said. “Feeling the joy of pride after being a part of their lives was a gift.”
“I’ve learned that I could make a difference in the crisis,” another mentor said.  
This group of youths is now taking this project forward by themselves and they are carrying out more activities with the children. They are passionate, committed, and therefore should be more empowered.

Near the end of the program, there was tremendous progress made by the children who were barely able to speak or understand the Turkish language after arriving at the Center. They were excited to tell us stories about their new, colorful textbooks.
After the six-month program, the children made enormous progress on both their language skills and mental health. The program also took steps for a successful closing phase in June 2017, but some components will continue as the organization hosting the program moved to a new site with a lot more space and facilities.
Bringing the smile back
Mentor students from Robert College, YIF team and SPI staff with the children. © World Bank

Childhood is a critical time of social and self-development as experiences during these years affect one's personality and perspective throughout life.  That is why we took on that project, but what was more exciting and rewarding to us are the smiles that were put back on the kids’ faces, the hugs we received, the impressive learning experience we had when visiting SPI’s Community Education Center, and that knowing these children enjoyed what was brought by our project.


Qiyang Xu

Program coordinator for the Global Platform for Sustainable Cities

Wandi Huang

Wandi Huang, Leadership Development Assistant in the Human Resources Vice Presidency of the World Bank Group

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