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Merit Küppers

Merit Küppers

Refugees, the other side of Istanbul & my volunteering experience

Since the start of the war in Syria in 2011, Istanbul has become a place of refuge and maybe even a home to tens of thousands, even millions of refugees. To me it has been a home for the past eight years.
Growing up here I have only ever known the bright and shiny sides of Istanbul, the parts that tourists like to buy postcards of. It is very easy for one to get used to seeing just one perspective, just one side of this city and pretending it’s the only one there is.

Istanbul-panoramic-view

But you can’t make a problem go away by ignoring it. To be clear- the circumstances under which
refugees have to live here are posing the biggest problems – not the refugees themselves. Small Projects Istanbul in Fatih does remarkable work for all these people that have lost their homes, families, friends, and that warm feeling of security and is able to give back a small part of that.
SPI offers activities ranging from computer classes over cooking lessons to homework club and those are not just providing a sense of belonging, of routine and normality, but what’s more, children and adult participants can acquire useful skills and get ready to have a shot at a better future.

In the fall of 2017, I had just finished high school and was looking for possibilities how to contribute in a meaningful way to ease the hard lives of refugees in Istanbul. I started volunteering at SPI in October 2017 as the new lead volunteer for the kid’s English activity. I must admit, having no background in education (other than having been to school myself) the thought of supervising a group of young kids was intimidating at first. Furthermore, I don’t speak a word of Arabic and had no idea how to communicate with these kids. But all of my worries turned out to be completely unreasonable: even though the activity was placed on Friday afternoons and thus at the end of a long week of school, I met kids who were curious to learn and eager to participate. The presence of Salma, another volunteer with Arabic language skills, helped whenever my English and Turkish turned out to be insufficient for communication. My activities consisted of songs, games and other methods that are less academic and more playful. Although I was not a professional at what I was doing, the kids seemed to enjoy it. One of the big hits was the song “Head shoulders knees and toes” that all of them can sing on demand now. With the arrival of Emily, a lovely volunteer that had a lot of experience in teaching English and working with kids, we were able to actually structure our activities: by meeting beforehand, planning the games and subjects for the next couple of weeks, reflecting on past activites, we slowly established a team routine that worked well.
spi volunteer with group of refugee kids
Merit with her group of kids at SPI's childcare area
These kids will grow up to be bi- or even trilingual. With Arabic as the native language and Turkish as the language spoken at school, these kids learn English as a second foreign language. Some of our youngest participants are just four or five years old but they pick up new languages quickly through fun activities and routines. This was amazing to observe and I was impressed by their progress. I suppose, speaking two or three languages will be a great advantage in every aspect of their future lives. Languages, especially English, will open gates to more opportunities with regard to schools and future jobs as well as different cultures and countries. I am really proud of the progress that my students have made so far and I wholeheartedly hope that they will continue to learn and have fun speaking English and eventually, that these skills will help them to be successful and happy.
Supervising and planning English activities had been my main occupation at SPI, yet in addition I also worked in the homework club and organized the fun time activities; the latter obviously being the children’s favorite. Every week, we thought of a different game or craft activity for the kids to try out like fruit origami or finger painting. They were open to all our ideas and sometimes even a bit over-excited and eager, resulting in glue and glitter everywhere.
In the six months I spent with SPI, I got used to the routines, I loved my duties, I hopefully lived up to the responsibilities I was given and last but not least, I realized how much I had bonded with those wonderful kids and how fond I had grown. Even though there were new faces almost every week, a consistent group of kids was always present and I enjoyed every hour I spent with them – even the more stressful ones. I have a better idea now what it means to be a teacher – but as much as I have been the children’s teacher these kids have always also been my teachers. I learned so much from them as well! Yassmin taught me how to say “I love you” in Arabic, Nur showed me how to say “no” and Mohamed introduced me to his wonderful laughter just to name a few. But all of them taught me that however hard life may be, to be given the chance to learn and communicate can be a seed for hope. I absolutely adored the spirits and motivation of these children. I wish them only the best for their future and I am very thankful to SPI for their trust and the opportunity to be part of such a dedicated team.

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