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The Chairman at a Cambridge International school convinced hundreds of private schools in Turkey to open their doors to students, after the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria

Cambridge Learners  Middle East & North Africa  

The education of thousands of children in Türkiye (Turkey) and Syria has been adversely affected after one of the most powerful earthquakes to hit the region in the last century. While the scale of the natural disaster continues to emerge, the impact of the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on 6 February 2023, is still being felt.

Many of the students who have lost their homes also lost the safety of their schools as they were destroyed or closed.

For Gökhan Ünlüer, the Chairman of the Board of Beştepe College, a Cambridge International school in Turkey, the devastation inspired him to create an educational initiative, asking private schools to open their doors to more than 30,000 students in Turkey missing out on their education. 

In this blog, he tells us about his drive to give thousands of children affected by the earthquake the support they need.

Tell us about yourself Gökhan

I am the Chairman of the Board of Beştepe College, a Cambridge International school in Turkey which was founded in 2015. Currently, it is the only school in our country that actively follows all of the Cambridge Pathway, namely Cambridge Primary, Cambridge Lower Secondary, Cambridge IGCSE, Cambridge International AS & A Level and, Cambridge Professional Development Qualifications. There is also a boarding option at our school.

I am a dedicated educator and I have been working as a consultant for Cambridge International for four years. I think children are our country’s most valuable resource.  My mission in life is to help them reach their full potential. I believe that well-educated children will contribute greatly to making our country, and the world a better place to live.

Tell us why you decided to start this project

The Turkish name of the project is “Misafir Öğrenci” and the website address is www.misafirogrenci.org

Misafir öğrenci means “guest student” in English. In other words, the student is hosted for a certain amount of time.

After the earthquake, the parent of one of our graduate students called me. She explained that there was a student who was preparing for the national university exams in Turkey and the earthquake adversely affected the student and his family. She asked whether this student could attend our school as a boarding student.

After that conversation, the idea of the guest student project came to my mind. I knew that people who survived the earthquake would have to migrate to other cities. I thought that when these people move, they would need a school to send their children to. Therefore, I thought if we could develop a software quickly, we will be able to create a website where private schools would announce the number of students they can host. This way, we would be able to host the children who survived the earthquake in our schools and provide them with educational and psychological support.

The first step I took was to have a meeting with the team of software developers in our school. They confirmed that we could quickly develop this software. Then, I shared the idea with the Ankara Education Platform which our school is affiliated with. All the school leaders enthusiastically said that they would support the project. Then, the project was introduced to six associations representing private schools in Turkey and the associations also agreed to support the project.

I was chosen as the project coordinator. The earthquake happened on 6 February and by 10 February, the private schools we were working with in Turkey started to announce on the website, the number of guest students they could accommodate. The project started to attract great interest from both media and the public.

Soon, we had celebrities and influencers starting to support us on social media, and news channels in Turkey were reporting about our work.

The applications began to increase, and students and their families started to benefit from the project.

Is your school in an affected area?

Our school is not in the earthquake zone, so it was not directly affected by the earthquake. However, this is a great disaster, that has a social and psychological impact on everyone in Turkey.

Who is involved in the project?

The main supporters of the project are seven associations representing private schools in our country. Ankara Education Platform, TÖZOK, TÖDER, ÖZDER, ÖZDEBİR, ÖZKURBİR, and Aegean Region Private Schools Association. Many local companies also supported the project.

When we started our project, we received verbal approval and support from the Ministry of National Education officials. While delivering the project, our Minister of National Education called the president of the associations and extended his thanks to all the schools that supported the project. At every step of the project, we acted under the regulations of the Ministry of National Education.

Today, 3,100 private schools have supported the project and announced quotas for students affected by the earthquake.

In addition, our school, Beştepe College’s alumni association gave us great support during this process. When the project started, we put a control mechanism in place to prevent misleading information when it came to registering schools accepting guest students on the website. We asked for support from our alumni association and many of our graduate students worked to support the project and ensure that the information reaching the public was accurate.

How many students have you been able to support as part of the project?

 When we examine private schools both from our system and the data of the Ministry of National Education, we see that more than 30,000 students affected by the earthquake were placed in private schools with full scholarships. It is a very large number, and we are grateful to the private schools of our country for providing this opportunity. Many schools received more registrations than this number. We are still collecting the exact number from schools.

What were your key priorities?

The most important thing for us was the social and emotional preparation of our schools for the guest students who experienced this trauma. We organised online seminars for administrators, teachers, and parents at the schools that will host guest students across the country. We involved prominent academics in our country to support the training.

We wanted our schools to be socially and psychologically safe for the students affected by the earthquake.

Out of the 3,100 private schools, some are boarding schools, but most of the students have settled with a relative or a friend.

What are the next steps for the project? Do you plan to extend the reach of the project?

We want to draw a scientific conclusion from this project. In this context, we have started a study with respected academics. This will focus on the experiences of the students, who were adversely affected by the earthquake, thus changing their cities and starting to study at a new school. With the scientific results of this academic study, we want to create a healthy roadmap for children who are adversely affected by a disaster anywhere in the world from now on.

Because of the earthquake and trauma, our children’s sense of security is damaged, which has a great impact on them. Building a child’s sense of trust is at the forefront of everything. The way to do this starts with getting the child back into routines and giving them responsibilities. Confidence is quickly rebuilt in children who have new routines.

Cambridge University Press & Assessment support to Turkey and Syria

Our thoughts are with those affected by the devastating earthquake in Türkiye (Turkey) and Syria. Our team in Turkey is working with schools to donate practical, much-needed items, including books, to help children continue their education at this critical time.

Our UK colleagues have been fundraising for the British Red Cross. There are many ways to support the charities providing support and humanitarian aid on the ground, including:

Donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee Turkey-Syria Earthquake Appeal

Donating to the British Red Cross’s Turkey-Syria Earthquake Appeal

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