How El Menahil International School Was Born

National Headquarters  |  August 4, 2019
Photo by: Ting Fan

Written by Dilber Shatursun

Civil war erupted in Syria in March 2011 and changed life for millions of Syrians. One of them, Cuma (pronounced Ju-ma) Thorayya, was a professor of Arabic, and, in 2012, was forced to make Istanbul, Turkey, his second home. Two years later, in the summer of 2014 – during Islam’s holiest month, Ramadan, he would meet a man who’d promise to serve the plight of Syria’s refugees.

Fateful Meetings

A good, faithful brother named Faisal… And as destiny would have it, and through God’s will, we met.

Faisal Hu, Tzu Chi Turkey Volunteer and wife Nadya Chou. Photo by: Ting Fan
Cuma Thorayya, El Menahil International School Principal. Photo by Jaime Puerta

Faisal Hu is a Taiwanese businessman and Tzu Chi volunteer who’d been living and working in Turkey for the past 23 years. Compelled to take action with the suffering at his doorstep, he and Cuma discussed the biggest struggles refugee families faced. In need of resources, Faisal rallied his former classmates from nearby Libya and raised $8,600. This was then donated across 313 families. This was not enough.

Faisal reached out to the Tzu Chi Foundation’s Global Headquarters in Hualien, Taiwan, to request international financial support. That October, 510 additional families received aid from Tzu Chi, and the next month, another 1,020 families would receive care packages that included rice, chickpeas, flour, and blankets.

On one visit, one family made an unusual request of the group: to get money instead of goods. Faisal was shocked; he could see the family struggled to afford food. Faisal asked why and the man replied:

We could be starved physically, but we must not be starved from knowledge.

Moved, Faisal approached Global Headquarters again. He would ask them to sponsor the education of Syrian refugee children.

If these children don't study today, in the future, you will have to spend ten times as much money and have no way to buy back the peace of your country.

Making an Irrefutable Case

In Istanbul alone, Faisal knew of at least 4,000 households where Syrian refugee families lived. Global Headquarters, with its many other humanitarian projects, was only prepared to sponsor 30 children from among those households. Knowing this was too little, Faisal and Cuma took the task of creating a register of as many refugee children as they could possibly find. They enlisted volunteers, including Faisal’s wife, Nadya Chou.

We went out every night and spent three weeks. From 8 o'clock to 12 o'clock in the evening… We visited households one by one

A visit to an El Menhail student and refugee house. Photo by: Hannah Whisenant

Many families were hesitant to let them in; many suspected the group of even being government spies. But, of the 108 households that granted them entry, they took the photos and information of 200 school-aged children. Through their research, Cuma and the team made startling discoveries.

Photo by: Hannah Whisenant
Photo by: Hannah Whisenant

Within a short period of time, Global Headquarters gathered the resources to sponsor the 200 students. But, Faisal bargained for more. With that, on January 23, 2015, El Menahil International School officially began its first day of classes at a boys school and a girls school, accommodating 578 students in total. That morning was a shock to the whole team.

Dancing, singing and jumping in joy! It was very strange.

One child arrived hours before school opened. He said that he was so excited to go to school that he hadn’t slept all night. It was clear that El Menahil, meaning oasis, or a respite from a dry desert, in Arabic, was already living up to its name.

Still, the complexities of refugee children’s lives were only just beginning to unravel.

A Battle Against Child Labor

After leaving their homes and lives in Syria, everyday individuals and families had to start with nothing in Turkey. It was a country where Turkish, and not Arabic, was predominantly spoken. And, with little to no money, families of all sizes needed places to stay, to feed and clothe their loved ones, and, somehow, to get jobs and earn money.

I swear some of them didn't have any blankets or beds. They slept in their own clothes! No one could've known or imagined these times... Four families would live together in one house so they could afford the rent.

The team knew that earning money for their families would prevent many children from attending school and would force others to drop out. Faisal presented the situation to Tzu Chi’s founder, Dharma Master Cheng Yen, and shared the horrid realities of exploited refugee children.

First, it is easier to train the children. Children with small hands can reach into shoes to make shoes. And second, the salary is only a third of the adult's salary. Third, the child can be beaten and abused. He can work 13 hours, but only goes to the toilet for 13 minutes.

Thenceforth, Global Headquarters offered stipends to 450 students to allow them to study instead. These stipends were equivalent to the wages those children would have earned at work- to the dismay of factory managers- further fulfilling the promise of education each student at El Menahil truly deserved. Now, the real work would begin.

Tapping into the Potential of Refugee Children

Syrian refugees were hired to be the teachers and staff at El Menahil, and all were carefully vetted. The school had received over 450 CVs! Many had been professionals and educators back home in Syria. But, in Turkey, they were street cleaners, shoemakers, and factory workers. Overnight, this would change for a lucky few.

Only two days ago, one of the teachers who got hired at the very start of school… She used to work all day, from morning until night, in bead work. All this work for 7 Liras* only.

*as of July 2019, equivalent to $1.26 USD

Photo by: Hannah Whisenant
Photo by: Jaime Puerta

Teachers and staff would now earn decent wages and would have the chance to help kids of the same cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds who shared the refugee experience. This would allow them to serve as the perfect role models to help their young students process the trauma they’d experienced.

Moreover, Faisal recalled how drawing was encouraged for self-expression. While he now sees them draw kittens, puppies, and little houses, the images they created in the beginning were bleak.

The drawings four years ago shows fighters in the sky, tanks on the ground; people with broken hands and broken feet. The seeds that grow are bloody. The leaves that grow out are written with hate. The rain was blood rain. Blood rain!

But, as time passed and the school gained more traction, it caught the attention of Turkey’s Deputy Minister of Education, UNICEF Turkey (which replicated Menahil’s educational model), and robotics company, SİMA Technology– who would sponsor a class perpetually unheard of for refugee children: robotics.

Photo by: Hannah Whisenant

Through the robotics program, we discovered [students with poor academic performance] had incredible skills… Moreover, psychological, intellectual and mental aspects revealed themselves as well… we spotted how incredibly smart the students were. It exposed a truth, hidden deep, and even change their behavior, for those that struggled.

Beyond implementing STEM classes, the team would need to get El Menahil’s diplomas accredited. Though it was a lengthy process, they finally got their credentials approved by the Turkish Government, as well as in other countries, including the United States. This meant that a child who graduates from El Menahil may, if they are accepted, move on to a college in Turkey and beyond.

The Promise Begins to Grow

As the school continued, it began adding language classes so adults and parents could learn the local language Turkish. This would significantly open up their job opportunities in Istanbul. But, perhaps even more life-changing was the addition of adult literacy classes for Syrians who never had the luxury of an education and were themselves illiterate.

Four months later, being able to open the Holy Qur’an and read it, that was a great change in life for them… It was a big change for them, they were finally able to use cell phone.

El Menahil now occupies a building in the busy Sultangazi District in Istanbul. Cuma remarked on the growth the school he’d witnessed since it all began.

Photo by: Hannah Whisenant
Photo by Jaime Puerta

Two rooms, no more than 30 to 40 meters, were all we had when we started. Today, each building exceeds 80 thousands meters. Praise the Almighty!

Now, a new promise lies on the horizon. Thanks to a meeting with the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish government may help procure land for the school’s future use. Though the paperwork and the details are being ironed out, the significance is an immense step.

And the President said, ‘I'll try my best to help you.’ As soon as I heard this, I cried

It is this deep feeling of connection to this cause that, for Faisal, has brought him to climb through every hill and every valley for Syrian refugees and their little ones. He attributes it to the faith he adopted, many moons ago.

From the Muslim point of view, what I do is my obligation... It’s a Muslim’s faith and behavior coming together. If you only have faith but don't act, you are just vain. If you only act, yet you don't believe, you are like a body without a soul… Allah gave me the opportunity to do this... And it has been life-changing for me and my wife...

Photo by Jaime Puerta

For Cuma, too, the sacrifice he has made has been great. He has been away from much of his family since 2016, missed his own son’s wedding, and was not present upon his mother’s death. Still, Cuma shares that his work is in great part a tribute to his late mother, who had a great love for learning.

I'd been dreaming of seeing my mother in Syria. But, I never got the chance. She passed away two and a half months ago… I consider this school a good deed I dedicate to her.

And he is skilled in seeing the blessings around him, including the monumental role Tzu Chi has played in helping innocent families overcome the world’s worst.

“I consider the school and the Tzu Chi Foundation God's gift to me… I need to protect and maintain it as God wills… we know that the best reward for [Tzu Chi] is for us to spread love among us as per our Prophet's guidance… I thank you all...We can never do you justice.”

Photo by: Ting Fan

With that, El Menahil International School is committed to providing quality education and life-changing opportunities for those lucky to have survived the Syrian Civil War. Show your support for the oasis of peace and love we know as El Menahil, the incredible men and women who keep it going, and the children to whom we may fulfill the promise of a lifetime.

Support El Menahil International School

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