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“Guests and Aliens”: Re-Configuring New Mobilities in the Eastern Mediterranean After 2011 - with a special focus on Syrian refugees

Civil Society Programme

Middle East Development Network

Lauranne Callet-Ravat

Entrées d'index

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1Throughout the two days of the conference, the reconfiguration of post-2011 mobilities has been highlighted along with its impact on host societies, triggering social change and fostering inherent public debate.

2The role of civil society and its various organizations has been thoroughly scrutinized in the light of recent years’ political developments in Arab countries and Turkey, notably in the context of the “Arab spring”. The evolution of the analysis of the state of civil society in the Arab world among international observers and academics has changed dramatically, however questions still remain. Pre-2011 Arab civil societies were generally considered weak, notably because of restrictive authoritarian regimes, lack of resources, and organizational skills. In 2011, the world received with a mixture of surprise, enthusiasm and questioning the social uprisings, and witnessed the demand of civil societies for a greater role in politics, the economy and society’s organization. At the end of 2014, international observers mostly agree on qualifying as a failure the impact of these social movements on genuine democratic transition, with probably the single exception of Tunisia. However, another general consensus is that the mid- and long-term evolutions implied by these social movements will be numerous. One of them, already visible, is the profusion of civil society organizations (hereafter CSO) with evolving and renewed status, roles and claims.

3The current situation of Syrian civil society is striking in its complexity and the stakes it involves. The Syrian population and, naturally its civil society, is spread and parceled out between Syria, its neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq), the rest of the Arab world, Europe, and the USA. Wherever they went, these newcomers encountered and integrated older diasporas. All this raises important new questions regarding modes of organization, strategic challenges for the coming years, and their possible impact on the country’s reconstruction.

4The case of Turkey and the current Syrian population present in the country is one of the cases with a multitude of complex evolutions. During this conference, important points have been underlined regarding Syrian refugees in Turkey, such as their ethnic composition, identity self-reflection and current legal status. Syrian civil society’s role in neighboring countries has been underlined during the Session 5 on “Research on Border Zones: New mobilities and transnational networks of humanitarian response”. Laura Ruiz de Elvira Carrascal pointed out the “raisons d’agir and production of a politicized discourse” of Syrian aid-delivering CSOs based in Turkey and Lebanon. Along her analysis, she shed light on the CSO members whose commitment in the field of social services was motivated by their will to help the country’s reconstruction in opposition to the politics of Assad’s regime. This reality in the field is certainly not disconnected from the other reality, the trend among Western donors and INGOs to carrying out a specific democratic agenda in funding and training Syrian CSOs, both inside and outside of Syria. Both elements are certainly to be taken into account in the above-mentioned long- and mid-term changes to be expected and analyzed regarding 2011 social movements.

5In this framework, one issue whose importance might be crucial for the effectiveness of change-driven Syrian CSOs is their practical means of action. Among those, a major one is the relationship of Syrian civil society with their counterparts in the host country. These relationships are among the factors defining the access to practical amenities in the host countries, helping to overcome legal obstacles, facilitating relationships with host authorities, but also, in a longer term, the relationship of the refugee community with the host country’s society. The relationship of refugee CSOs with host country counterparts in strengthening Syrian civil society is currently out of the scope of most international aid programs and current field case studies. It is particularly important to study this relationship in order to better understand the phenomenon and foster its positive outcomes.

6In our case study, the Turkish landscape is of importance because of its neighboring position, high number of Syrian CSOs and growing number of INGOs that settle in the country. Turkey is also one of the most difficult countries in Syria’s neighborhood for Syrian CSOs in terms of creating links with host societies, notably due to the language barrier, but also certainly because of the weaker cultural ties and civil society relationships, compared to Jordan or Lebanon.

7Now I am pleased to present the case study of Akademi Society, a Turkish CSO that has considerably adapted its work and orientations to the recent influx of Syrian refugees and created strong links with Syrian CSOs. This Turkish CSO offers a striking example of a civil society initiative that has felt the impact and subsequently rapidly adapted to the new phenomenon of Syrian refugees and CSOs, and diversified its services in the light of the emerging reality. It is also an example of a local CSO that, in cooperation with its partner organization Middle East Development Network (MDN), undertakes the process of institutionalizing and internationalizing its activities as a result of the transformations.

I. About Akademi/AKDEM

8Akademi Society, also known as AKDEM, is a Turkish CSO, which has been witnessing a dramatic transformation of its activities with the afflux of Syrian and other Arab refugees to Istanbul. Legally speaking, the Akademi team manages two entities, the NGO or association Akademi Society for Language and Scientific Research1 [Akademi Lisan ve İlmi Araştırmalar Derneği], and AKDEM Istanbul Foreign Education Consulting2 [AKDEM İstanbul Yurt Dışı Eğitim Danışmanlık Hizmetleri], a professional language training and distance learning center certified by the Turkish Ministry of National Education. The CSO is registered since 2009, although active before that date, and is headquartered in the Fatih district of Istanbul. The original purpose of Akademi was to deliver Arabic language classes to Turkish students and to promote the learning of Arabic in Turkey through various cultural and educational activities, as well as through university distance learning programs. In addition, Akademi became the leading partner of the Ministry of National Education in the field of Arabic teaching. In addition, since 2010, it organizes the annual International Arabic Competitions3, under the official patronage of the Ministry, between secondary schools that have Arabic classes.

9Starting in 2012, Akademi began to be frequently contacted by Syrians who identified it as one of the rare “Arabic speaking organizations” in Istanbul. Upon their request, Akademi enhanced its activities to include Turkish classes for Arab speakers. In 2013, the volume of Turkish classes and teachers increased exponentially. In 2014, Akademi opened a second branch in the Başakşehir district of Istanbul in order to respond to the growing demand (large numbers of Syrians and other Arabs live in both Fatih and Başakşehir). Akademi currently receives monthly an average of 600 students in the Fatih branch and 156 students in the Basaksehir branch.

II. Socio-economic profile of students

10The population receiving classes at AKDEM is mostly constituted of Syrians but also of Palestinians, Egyptians, Iraqis and other Arab groups. With the opening of its Başakşehir branch, the AKDEM leadership started to notice socio-economic differences among Syrian refugees. The Fatih branch is mostly hosting a population with a lower income, while the Başakşehir branch is visited by a wealthier Syrian and Arab population. In this regard, AKDEM has developed two different pricing policies: a low price in Fatih and higher fees in the newly established branch in Başakşehir, as well as lower prices for Arabs than for Turks. This differentiation allowed to establish a subsidy system between the two branches in order to make the system financially sustainable. For example, Turkish classes for Arabic speakers are almost half the price of Arabic classes for Turks.

III. Bridging with Syrian CSOs

11In addition to providing language classes, which is a major tool for fostering integration in the local society, AKDEM diversified its activities through the creation of bridges with Syrian CSOs. This diversification started in late 2013 upon refugees’ request to organize their own education and to get support from AKDEM in framing their activities. Hence, AKDEM started to host Syrian schools, from primary education to secondary school level, in September 2013 in Fatih and in September 2014 in Başakşehir. AKDEM infrastructures are currently hosting one of the most modern Syrian schools of Istanbul, with classes delivered in well-adapted buildings, in contrast to other Syrian schools that are mostly hosted in non-adapted residential buildings.

12The close cooperation between AKDEM and the Syrian schools was further strengthened by the dissolution of the main Syrian coordination platform for education that used to coordinate 18 refugee schools in Istanbul. In such a context, the two Syrian schools hosted by AKDEM approached AKDEM’s leadership to request them to join their management board and thus to not only just host them but also to be directly involved in the process of school management.

13This partnership between Turkish and Syrian CSOs also led to concrete experience sharing in the field of education. Although the major part of the school curriculum is designed by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) based in Gaziantep, AKDEM was requested to provide some expert support on the educational content and in the provision of books. Some AKDEM standards were also adopted by the two Syrian schools, notably in welcoming a maximum of 17 students per class.

14In addition to educational activities, AKDEM also became a supportive structure in terms of consulting for various legal issues (residency permit, administrative matters etc.) and the registration of Syrian CSOs. Based on its own rich experience of NGO management, the AKDEM team consulted for free with a number of Syrian initiatives that wished to register as NGOs, explaining the procedures of registration, helping in filling various documents and forms, guiding in terms of legal steps, and advising on NGO management.

15Those diverse requests from Syrian CSOs and the cooperation with AKDEM can be seen as an exception that proves the rule. Difficulties are common for Syrian schools in Turkey, especially in finding proper host structures and getting efficient organizational support, and more broadly, it is often difficult for Syrian CSOs to create strong ties with well-established Turkish CSOs and with public institutions. AKDEM’s pre-existing familiarity with the Arab culture and its specialization in Arabic language teaching has been a key factor for creating a bridge with the Syrian CSOs and fostering trust with Syrian partners. This is a rather rare example for Turkish CSOs.

IV. On-going institutionalization and internationalization of activities

16In order to extend its funding sources; strengthen its capacities; capitalize on its work, knowledge and best practices, in recent years Akademi’s leadership decided to develop project design skills and bidding capacities in order to participate in various funding programs. The team of Middle East Development Network4 supported this evolution towards the professionalization of project development and the search for institutional funding, along with the internationalization that allowed growing networking and partnerships with international organizations and INGOs. MDN is an international development company specialized in governance and public policy, based in Istanbul and active in the Middle East and Turkey. Its activities blend those of a consulting company, think tank, and civil society organization. Some of leaders are involved in both MDN and Akademi, which creates an operational link between the two organizations. MDN having extensive experience in the fields of international migration and integration, as well as in project development and international funding, supported this diversification of AKDEM’s activities. This created a bridge between local best practices and institutional and international perspectives related with Syrian refugee matters.

17Thus in 2012-2013 Akademi developed a project and secured funding from the Istanbul Regional Development Agency for training medical staff to answer the growing needs of the Arab-speaking population in local hospitals. The training program provided on one side basic Arabic language skills to the medical staff, and on the other hand taught medical terminology to professional translators of Arabic. The final beneficiaries of such a project were at the same time Arabic speaking “medical tourists” and the Syrian population settled in Istanbul.

18Following this first activity funded by a specialized donor, two other project proposals were submitted to the Istanbul Development Agency: one (following a similar logic) focused on the vocational training of Arabic speakers regarding graphic design skills and on basic Arabic skills for professional designers. The second project aimed at studying the socio-economic profile of Syrians in Istanbul. Although both projects were not awarded for various technical reasons, Akademi was able to develop its project development skills and knowledge of the funding process.

19In 2014, Akademi partnered with MDN in its joint bidding with an American NGO, International Relief and Development (IRD), for the funds of the Bureau of Population for Refugees and Migration (BPRM) in the US State Department (this submission was not awarded either for technical reasons). In this project, Akademi’s role would be the hosting of activities for Syrian refugees and using its network with Syrian CSOs to create actions aiming at the social integration of refugees.

20Among other project ideas currently developed jointly by Akademi and MDN is designing distance-learning higher education programs for Arabic speakers and more specifically for Syrians, potentially in partnership with various universities. However, such a project implies important investments and might lead the organization to lobby this idea with various national and international fund-providers.

21In addition, Akademi develops its networking skills with international organizations and institutions, and makes ad hoc information exchanges with them. Thus, various working visits to and from UNHCR, IOM, various Western INGOs took place last year, with the involvement and support of MDN.


22In general, although most Syrian CSOs and Turkish CSOs operate virtually in two separate worlds despite being in the same geographic territory, some of them were able to develop solid partnerships and consistent joint activities. Among those, Akademi stands out as probably the rare Turkish CSO that was able to undertake a major adaptation to the new situation, to tailor its policies to the new needs and demographic phenomena, and to take full advantage of the opportunities that the presence of Syrian refugees offers. The fact that prior to the massive arrival of Syrians, Akademi was focused on Arabic language and had already a good cultural understanding of the Arab world has undoubtedly played a positive role in this transformation. On the other side, these demographic transformations also pushed this Turkish local CSO to develop project design and bidding skills, to discover various national and international funding channels, to professionalize its project implementation, and to develop networking relations with various international organizations and institutions (UNHCR, OIM, INGOs). In this field Akademi’s close partnership with an internationally-oriented team, the MDN, has been advantageous and instrumental. Through the example of Akademi, fostering the creation of relationships between Turkish and Syrian CSOs appears to be beneficial for both sides and to create mid and long terms efficient means of action for refugee CSOs in the host country.


Middle East Development Network, Istanbul

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