Helping people displaced by the Syrian war rebuild their lives

The mission of Small Projects Istanbul (SPI) is to facilitate access to formal education for Syrian refugees through its scholarship fund and to provide supplemental education that will assist students and families to succeed in Turkey and beyond, paving the way for better opportunities in the future. It also coordinates a craft collective for Syrian women to provide livelihood support.

SPI’s roots lie in founder Karyn Thomas’s experiences in the Yarmouk Camp, an area of Damascus populated by Palestinian refugees, in 2011 and 2012. After engaging in various “small projects” to assist families from Syria living in Istanbul, SPI’s volunteer team has now focused its efforts on education and livelihood support. While the war rages on, SPI is helping to stop the downward spiral into unemployment and poverty that curtailed education threatens to create for members of what is being called Syria’s “lost generation.”


    More than half the population of Syria have now become refugees. Two million refugees are currently in Turkey


    More than half of all Syrian refugees are children


    More than 500,000 Syrian children are not in school in Turkey


Small Projects Istanbul is run by a group of volunteers who came together out of a desire to help refugees from Syria rebuild their lives
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Founder and Co-Director

Originally from Australia, Karyn lived in Damascus for four years – two before the war and two after it began. She saw first-hand the political, economic, and social collapse and its devastating impact on the community as well as the threat to the safety of her friends and their families. To have known Syria as it was brought her great joy, to know it as it is now, deep sadness. Today, Karyn lives in Istanbul and is fully committed to helping build bridges so people displaced by the war in Syria can get their lives back on track. She feels privileged to work together with many fine individuals through this grassroots project that help the community to thrive. Karyn is a 2016 honoree of Harvard Law and International Development Society’s ‘Women Inspiring Change’ for her work with Small Projects Istanbul.

“We started small education initiatives in Yarmouk Camp in Damascus, until it became evident we would have to move because of the war, and I selected Istanbul to be the next location, and we grew the project here.”
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Shannon comes from Australia but her lifelong passion for travel and immersing herself in new places inspired her to undertake a degree in International Studies, which led her to Istanbul. Here she has developed a strong interest in and connection to Turkish and Middle Eastern people and politics. Shannon believes in the power of education as a tool for transformation, and sees Small Projects Istanbul as a platform to achieve great things in the local Syrian community in Turkey and the wider Syrian diaspora. She manages SPI’s Olive Tree Community Education Center, coordinating activities and developing the program schedule.

“We opened the Olive Tree Community Education Center in Fatih and work together with the Syrian community, with the focus of integration, resettlement and a safe space.”
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Communications Manager; Project Manager

Anna started working with asylum seekers and refugees in New Zealand and Australia over a decade ago. A journalist by trade, she has covered social and political issues worldwide, including the Syrian crisis. Anna is now SPI’s communications manager and she coordinates partnerships, funding and advocacy. She is also a project manager of the Olive Tree Craft Collective. Anna made the switch to development work after realizing the limited impact media coverage of the conflict in Syria was having on the response of the international community, and decided to opt for a more grassroots approach to helping those affected by it.

“The impact of the language classes, as well as the arts and sports activities we’re running for the children, along with the Olive Tree Craft Collective for the women, are beyond even what we anticipated.”
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Siba Alaridi

Community Liaison

Like everyone else in Syria, Siba and her family were affected by the devastation of the war, and fled from Damascus to Istanbul carrying as many memories as they could. It was difficult to start over and she often felt lonely and disheartened until she heard about Small Projects Istanbul. Meeting the volunteers and working with the children gave Siba, a structural engineer, a deep sense of belonging – and an insight into the impact that the lack of schooling was having on so many children. She is grateful for the opportunity to give back and be part of a diverse and supportive community. Siba has been selected as one of the inspirational BBC 100 Women for her work with Small Projects Istanbul.

“Everybody wants to help, and I’m Syrian so I really want to do something. And now, because of being involved in SPI, I created a sense of belonging. I created friendship – and life.”
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Chris McLaren

Assistant Director

Chris earned a degree in Media and Gender Studies from Pomona College in California in 2006, which led him to work in the LGBTI community as a volunteer coordinator and in a video production workshop to empower underprivileged LGBTI youth of color in Los Angeles, gaining valuable experience working with marginalized populations. Additionally, his previous work as a production coordinator has prepared him for his role at SPI, where he manages the volunteer team and provides direct support to the organization’s various programs. While larger NGOs address issues of resettlement and asylum seeking, Chris believes in the paramount importance of SPI’s work in community development for displaced Syrians in Istanbul.

“I believe in the paramount importance of SPI’s work in community development for displaced Syrians in Istanbul.”
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Othman Karkokli

Program Coordinator

Othman comes from Palmyra, Syria and has been living in Istanbul since September 2015. He graduated from the department of translation at Damascus University and has been teaching English for more than seven years. At SPI he manages the weekly schedule and is responsible for student and teacher coordination. Othman is especially happy to be part of the SPI team because he finds it is a valuable organization to contribute his skills for the development of educational opportunities for children from his country who may otherwise not have the chance to learn. SPI has also become an important place for Othman to feel relaxed and at home, make new friends and establish himself in a new city.

“I’m really happy at SPI because I can contribute to development and educational opportunities for children from my country who were missing out.”
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Mehmet Çetinkaya

Curriculum Coordinator

After studying and working in various fields, Mehmet has found his way to Turkish language teaching, with a focus on our guests, neighbors or rather friends from Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Palestine, who have had to leave their countries because of wars. He believes that language is the biggest barrier to being able to continue their studies, find jobs, socialize and integrate into the society. Moreover, as different societies are better able to communicate, the prejudice and tension will decrease and building peace will be possible. At SPI Mehmet is responsible for the Turkish curriculum as well as student and teacher coordination. He sees Turkish classes as not only about language learning but also as a tool for establishing a community.

“As different societies are better able to communicate, the prejudice and tension will decrease and building peace will be possible.”