Özge Sönmez Vardar is Program Director at YUVA Association, an Istanbul-based NGO that tackles issues relating to ecology, human rights, and poverty eradication simultaneously. In 2019, Özge was selected by the Malala Fund to be a Gulmakai Champion from the Syria region, for her work supporting girls’ education, especially refugee girls’ access to education and training programs for educators on how to manage culturally diverse classrooms.
Rukmini Banerjee, President of HasNa, spoke to Özge about YUVA’s peace education programs targeting Syrian refugee and Turkish host communities in Turkey to get a sense of the challenges, lessons learned, and the types of interventions needed, going forward. You may listen to the interview below.
Can you tell us a little bit about YUVA and the kind of work that you have been doing: your mission and vision?
Sure. First of all, thank you for inviting me and for this opportunity to share. YUVA is a non-governmental organization operating in Turkey since 2010. We are quite a young organization. We are mainly working on environmental issues, and on poverty. Actually YUVA takes measures for sustainable lifestyles, poverty reduction, and democratization through adult learning. We promote participatory teaching methods. In 2010, it was a “feeling” that made us take the decision to found this organization; a feeling of responsibility about the things going on in the geographical area of the world that we are living in: Turkey. We were a group of friends who came together and we said that okay we want to do something for a better life in Turkey, to support the people in need in Turkey, and so we founded YUVA. Since then we are working with the Turkish host community and the Syrian refugees since 2012 in Turkey. Approximately 30,000 people are benefiting from the services that YUVA provides. This includes the education services, protection services, and livelihood services.
At what point did you identify the need to start peace education programs in the Turkish context?
It was right after the crisis in Syria. Starting from 2011, millions of people started to come to Turkey. As of today, around 5 million Syrian refugees are living in Turkey, and this is actually a very new and a very unique situation for Turkey and the world. As you can imagine, it is not easy both for the Syrians and for the host community, suddenly to start to live together. We found out that both the host community and the Syrian community need to know each other. The perfect tool for this need was peace education. This is how we started to provide peace education in Turkey.
Can you tell us about YUVA’s own non-formal education programs and how you are incorporating values like empathy, diversity, tolerance, and cross-cultural understanding into your curriculum?
YUVA provides non-formal education since its foundation and the main values are empathy, diversity, tolerance. How do we develop our non-formal education programs? We first define the need on the field. How we define the need is we conduct some assessments with the target group that we are going to work with. Following those assessment analyses, we develop our program. We found out that communities living in Turkey need to know each other better, because there are some prejudices in the community and we can get rid of those prejudices only by knowing each other better. And the only tool we know is coming together, sharing things together, doing something together – so all those values are the basis of our education programs. All education programs conducted at YUVA are based on participatory methods: it’s not like somebody standing and telling you about what peace education is, what empathy is, or what the importance of diversity is, or why diversity matters in a society. But it is something that we discover together as participants in the training.
Can you give us an example of a participatory method that you use in your classroom?
While working with children, we use art as a method. We do group work, and imagine a world that you would like to live in. Some of the children are drawing the world that they imagine, some of the children are acting, putting up a play for the rest of the participants. This is how we use different tools in our education programs. Art is one of the methods. There are some other methods like simulations or role-playing or small group discussions.
What kind of age groups are you targeting with your programs? Are you doing any specific programs with refugee girls, especially as part of the Gulmakai Network?
There are different education programs conducted under the umbrella of YUVA. We are working with children from the age of 6 years, and also with youth and adults, but we have different programs for the different target groups. For instance, for the children that are out of school we have some social cohesion programs with the objective to improve and strengthen their life skills, and support their integration into the community. For the children who are in schools: we provide supporting programs for their academic life. For instance we provide language programs or Maths classes, science classes, coding classes. For the young people we provide university examination preparation programs to give them access to higher education. And for the adults we have many varieties. We again have language education programs. Let me tell you a little bit about the main need for the Syrian people living in Turkey. It is Turkish language education. Even though many people seem to think we speak Arabic in Turkey, that is not the situation. We speak Turkish in Turkey, so the Syrian people need to learn Turkish in order to communicate, in order to survive. Since YUVA is working closely with the Syrian refugees, one of the main programs we provide is Turkish language education. We also provide vocational education programs for adults, and from last year, peace education programs both for the Syrian community and for the host community. Therefore there are different kinds of programs targeting different learning objectives being conducted under YUVA.
What has been the hardest part about teaching peace in a classroom environment? What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced in your work?
The hardest part was to bring two communities together. Comparatively, it’s much easier to work with only host community members or to work with only Syrian refugees. But when we talk about peace, we need to be sure that we can live together. In order to live together, we need to know each other, that’s why we need to come together. This part was the hardest part for us, because before the Syrian crisis, neither the Turkish governmental organizations nor the non-governmental organizations have any experience working with such a big number of refugees. So this is what we learned throughout the years. This was the hardest part for us. After conducting some assessments we found out what each community expects from each other, from themselves, and from the NGOs like YUVA. Then we developed our programs accordingly, and from the point of 0 I can say that we are in a very good point right now, on doing something together with the Syrian community and the host community. Today, it is much easier. Today, we can organize events together, we can provide education services together, we can build committees together. For instance, there are some women’s committees or youth committees and the community centers of YUVA, where they can define their needs or develop their action plan in order to make their lives better.
The Syrian Crisis was quite unanticipated, and I’m sure it was a big learning process for all governmental and non-governmental organizations working with the refugee communities. What is the biggest lesson that you have learned in all these years that you have spent working with these communities?
I can tell you the general experience of the non-governmental organizations in Turkey. For the first few years, and I can say maybe for the first 4 or 5 years, we just focused on the Syrian community and their needs. Some Mediterranean organizations provided some in kind support, some organizations provided cash support, some developmental organizations like YUVA provided education support, and we tried to contribute to the social cohesion of Syrian refugees to life in Turkey. But 4 or 5 years later, we found out that this is not something that we can achieve only by working with the Syrian community. If you want to do something about social cohesion, if you want to contribute to social peace in Turkey, you have to include the host community members as well. Then in 2017, YUVA developed a program on migration awareness only for the host community members: Turkish society. In that program, we talked about the refugee situation in Turkey, because Syrians do not have refugee status in Turkey. There is a separate status defined for Syrians as being under “temporary protection”. They have different kinds of rights and they have different kinds of services. We talked about those rights and services in this committee as there is a lot of wrong information flying in the air among the host community and this really affects the relationship between the host community and the Syrian community. Hence through this program we are delivering the right information to the NGO workers, staff working with local authorities, or any other Turkish community member. This is the biggest thing that we learned. If you want to bring about social peace, it is not possible by working only with Syrians.
Is there any conversation around incorporating peace education into the national education policy framework of Turkey?
Yes, the Ministry of National Education really gives importance to peace education and social cohesion. This is one of their priorities for this year. YUVA has a protocol with Ministry of National Education in Turkey. Thanks to this protocol we are an authorized organization to provide any education services including language education, vocational education, or life skills education. Therefore we have regular meetings with MONE (Ministry of National Education) and we know that this is actually in their agenda. This is valid not only for the Ministry of National Education but valid for other ministries as well, such as Ministry of Family and Social Policy and Ministry of Labor. Social cohesion is a priority for all the ministries in Turkey right now.
As a member of Turkish civil society, what are some of the recommendations you have for academicians and policy-makers advocating for peace education? Moreover, what is your most important appeal to the international community that is trying to help the vulnerable populations who have been affected by the crisis in Syria?
My recommendation would be to give more importance to training educators or teachers, because currently the Ministry of National Education is running some programs to strengthen the capacity of teachers in public schools since now there are hundreds and thousands of Syrian children in public schools. The Turkish teachers do not know how to work in a multi-lingual, multi-cultural environment or how to work with children with war trauma. So they need some capacity development programs. I know the Ministry of National Education runs programs like this, I think those programs need to be more widely provided to as many teachers as possible in the country because I know the teachers really need support. For academicians my recommendation would be to develop more and more manuals and bring the best practices from the world to Turkey. That is very important for social peace in Turkey.
For your second question: I would like to say that Turkey is really doing an important thing for the last 8 years. That’s why Turkey needs more regular support from the rest of the world. Turkey needs more knowledge on best practices from all over the world. I would like to remind that this is not the responsibility of Turkey or only the Turkish government. Other countries and people living in other countries have a responsibility as well. This could be through donations, through volunteering, or it could be through bringing some best practices to Turkey.