A half-hour drive from the city center, we are greeted by a cacophony of young Syrian children standing in a row, awaiting instruction from their teacher, who, clad in a red and black tracksuit is yelling out punch and kick combinations over the rukus. As it turns out, one of the many extracurricular sports and activities offered at this early learning/ day care center for Syrian children is a kickboxing class, which appears to be wildly popular with the school’s five-year-old clientele.
We are momentarily distracted by the action before remembering we’re here to interview the school’s owners, not its pupils.
Ruba comes over to greet us, and offers us coffee. A graduate from the faculty of early childhood education at a university in Syria, she is now the owner and managing partner of this center, which she runs with four other partners, each coming from diverse backgrounds but united in their desire to serve the Syrian refugee market in Turkey. “We have 80 children [enrolled] here and there is always need to take in more”, she says of the growing demand for early education providers that cater to the Syrian population in Turkey. “We moved to Turkey with a few possessions and our life savings. That was it. Myself and my partners have invested everything we had in this center, without any other money or support because at the time, we couldn’t get any.”
As a business owner, her experience has been a difficult one. In addition to navigating the legal, regulatory, and financial compliance challenges that many Syrian entrepreneurs face, Ruba explains some of the additional hurdles she has encountered, “Because [as a day care/early childhood center] early childhood education falls under the administration of the Ministry of Education, there are additional rules and regulations under Turkish Law we must comply with to become legally registered. Moreover, because we want to make the center as affordable as possible for Syrian families, the cost of tuition is not enough to cover operating costs and salaries, so we had to pay a lot of money from our own savings, although this is not sustainable for the future…There is also a difference in how Syrians are treated in Turkey, for example, we know the tenant in the same building above the center pays half the price we do in rent because they are Turkish, not Syrian.”
Despite a seemingly insurmountable list of obstacles, this self-funded labor of love has paid off, thanks to the dedication and persistence of its owners. As a significant accomplishment, the center now employs 16 staff, 14 of which are women, including teachers and a manager. Ruba introduces us to one of the instructors, whom we discover is Turkish. This, Ruba explains, “is because it is important for the children to learn the language [Turkish] so they can adjust to the education system in their new country and home”. Besides priming children for entry into the Turkish school system, Ruba also explains how the center has helped bring women into the formal labor market. This, she notes, is because many female staff were working in the informal sector prior to their employment at the center.
Ruba is keen for the centers to expand to other cities with large Syrian populations, including Istanbul, and Ankara, to keep up with growing demand. She hopes to be able to hire as many as 35 more people over the next year and needs access to finance to grow. If the security situation inside Syria permits, Ruba also hopes to open new centers inside Syria, while keeping the current centers operational.