Millions of Syrian people have endured over seven years of civil war and miss their motherland terribly. Many of them have fled to Turkey, a neighbouring country that serves as a safe refuge for numerous Syrian refugees who have fled the violence in their homeland. Tzu Chi volunteers in Turkey worked with Professor Cuma to establish Menahel Primary and Secondary School as well as a free Clinic for the refugees, in the hope that the refugee children may have a chance to receive education and that the adults can find gainful employment, thereby enabling them to live a life of dignity.
An Opportune Phone Call
Professor Cuma, who is Syrian in origin, is a key driving spirit behind Tzu Chi’s aid to the Syrian refugees. He had previously taught in a Syrian university, until violent civil war tore the country apart. After his father’s death, he made plans for a temporary refuge in Turkey. When he was bidding farewell to his mother, Professor Cuma was met with the strong sentiments of his aged mother.
“She was wailing loudly, as if we would never see each other again……” he recalled.
In 2012, Professor Cuma brought his family of three, including his wife and two sons to Istanbul. Two years later in 2014, a Taiwanese student who had once studied in Syria as a university student, received news that Cuma, his former professor, was in exile in Turkey. The student contacted Faisal Hu, a Chinese Muslim living in Turkey who is also a Tzu Chi volunteer, and introduced the professor to him. And it was that opportune call from Taiwan that started the collaborative efforts between Faisal and Professor Cuma to help the Syrian refugees.
There are only three Tzu Chi volunteers in Turkey, namely Faisal Hu, his wife Zhou Ru Yi, and Yu Zi Cheng. With the help of friends and boarding students, they had bought blankets, mattresses, etc. and distributed the supplies to the refugees who had just made it across the border into Turkey. Thus, even though the refugees had neither kin nor shelter, they could at least rest their tired bodies in public parks or on the streets.
Stranded Alone on Foreign Soil
As the number of refugees in Turkey swelled rapidly, Faisal Hu informed Tzu Chi’s headquarters in Taiwan about their urgent need for aid. And it was via Professor Cuma’s connections that hundreds of Syrians donned Tzu Chi’s volunteer vests and took on volunteer responsibilities of visiting numerous impoverished families and distributing relief supplies to the latter.
As large numbers of refugees required aid in Turkey, Professor Cuma relinquished his teaching role in the university and accepted Tzu Chi’s tenure to manage its charitable assistance programmes and assist the students of Menahel School.
In July 2015, Harry, the 16-year-old son of the professor, decided to smuggle into Germany, hoping to seek a brighter future for himself. Harry had only brought along fifteen hundred euros with him when he embarked on the arduous journey.
The young man first rode a public bus in Istanbul before taking a boat ride and then boarding an ocean-faring ship across the Aegean Sea into Greece. And from Greece, he took a North-bound train before joining a large number of refugees to walk along the railway tracks, to cross into Germany by foot. It was only eight months after Harry’s departure that Professor Cuma finally saw his son again via video communications.
The father of two has experienced many tearful moments, and couldn’t hold back his tears in front of his sons. After Harry’s departure, his elder son began exhibiting signs of a mental disorder. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by the violence of war back home.
“He often cuts himself with a knife,” Prof. Cuma expressed with visible pain at the sufferings of his child.
His own mother lives in the countryside in Damascus, where the fighting wasn’t as intense; and he decided to let his wife bring his elder son back home with the hope that it could help him heal his emotional traumas. However, little did he expect the borders to be sealed off later, a situation that left him stranded alone on foreign soil. Now, he can only receive updates on his family’s well-being via long-distance phone calls.
An Oasis Out of Life
“The pain of separation from my flesh and blood is akin to a man being separated from his head and limbs,” Professor Cuma said painfully.
Syrians, like Asians, place a heavy emphasis on family ties. The Eid-el fitr (festival of fast-breaking) is equivalent to the Muslim “New Year”. During this festive season in the past, Professor Cuma and his whole family would pray together in the mosque, hug and bless each other, before gathering with relatives. It was a time of great joy for his family.
Being separated from his family and stranded alone in Turkey, he said with grief: “Whenever the important Muslim festivals come around, such as the Eid-el fitr and Eid al-Adha, my heart will be filled with suffering!”
Oftentimes, it is only when one is faced with the suffering of others that one can forget his own. Together with other Syrian volunteers, the professor visited one refugee household after another, in order to single out the households that are especially in need of help and arrange for Tzu Chi to provide assistance to them. Relief items, such as cash cards, wage subsidies or winter fuel subsidies, were subsequently distributed by Tzu Chi volunteers according to each individual household’s needs.
Most of the refugee children under the age of 14 started working to supplement their families’ sparse income, and because of this, many had to stop schooling.
“Their wages are low, and they are highly compliant,” remarked Faisal Hu.
Faisal Hu had once made a visit to one such factory hiring child labour. The owner of the factory had offered to increase the children’s pay by S$9 for fear of losing such good workers, a considerable sum that was equivalent to a week’s rent. But the children chose to quit their jobs and study in Menahel School.
“I want to use this $9 to buy my own future,” said one of the children.
There were about 400 plus working students who were called to study in Menahel School, and they even received subsidies for their families’ living expenses. “Menahel” was a name picked by Professor Cuma, and takes its meaning from “a stream in the desert”. He is happy and relieved to see that the children, who have been exposed to the violence and cruelties of war, are able to learn to be “human” again after joining the school - to regain their sense of human dignity and chart a new path in life.
Menahel is like a refreshing stream of knowledge that quenches the parched soil of the children’s mind after being out of school for a long time. It is akin to an oasis in the desert that enables the lives of the young refugees to bear fruits of knowledge.