More Than a School

Compiled by Tzu Chi Monthly editorial staff
Translated by Wu Hsiao-ting
Photos by Mohammed Nimir Aljamal

El Menahil International School in Türkiye helps Syrian refugee children continue their education during displacement. The school also restores the dignity of Syrian education workers by providing them with employment opportunities.

Graduates capture their happiness at the graduation ceremony of El Menahil International School’s high school female class in 2021.

Muhammed Munir Amino’s life was going well in his early 30s. He was raising four beautiful children with his wife in a lovely house, and serving successfully as the principal of a secondary school. Unfortunately, his peaceful life took a tragic turn with the onset of the Syrian civil war in 2011. His hometown, the border city of Idlib, was transformed overnight into a battleground. The conflict compelled him to leave the life he had loved. Bidding farewell to his wife, children, and mother was the most heart-wrenching part.

He eventually ended up in Istanbul, Türkiye, in 2015, but all of his educational expertise was irrelevant in his host city, leaving him no choice but to work in a bakery.

In the same year, Tzu Chi, in collaboration with the government of the Sultangazi district in Istanbul, established El Menahil, a school for Syrian refugee children. Amino was able to join the school, thus re-entering the education system. He became a Tzu Chi volunteer at the same time, assisting the foundation in monthly aid distributions to thousands of Syrian refugee families. He even traveled to quake-stricken areas for disaster relief after earthquakes struck southern Türkiye in February 2023.

The term “Menahil” in the Tzu Chi school’s name, translated from Arabic, means “spring of water,” symbolizing a source of knowledge for children trapped in an educational desert. In 2018, the school received accreditation from an American accrediting agency and was renamed El Menahil International School. Graduates can now obtain diplomas acknowledged by the Turkish Ministry of Education and pursue further education worldwide.

By the end of 2022, El Menahil International School had nurtured 343 graduates, with 265 of them entering universities. Among the latter, 70 pursued medical-related disciplines, 114 entered STEM fields, and 81 pursued literature and social sciences. Because the number of students enrolled in the school has been increasing, Tzu Chi has acquired land to build a new campus.

In October 2023, a team of 13, including personnel from the school and Tzu Chi volunteers from Türkiye, visited various Tzu Chi facilities in Taiwan. During the trip, Muhammed Munir Amino, in his capacity as the principal of El Menahil’s high school division and the school’s academic director, signed a memorandum of understanding with Tainan Tzu Chi Senior High School in southern Taiwan, aiming to expand the international perspectives of students at both schools. Before returning to Türkiye, he choked back tears, saying that history would remember the people who guided thousands of Syrian students from darkness to light with love and kindness. He promised Dharma Master Cheng Yen and Tzu Chi volunteers that he and the other visiting educators would take the love they had experienced in Taiwan back to Türkiye and someday return with outstanding graduates, sharing how Tzu Chi’s assistance had led them to achieve excellence in life.

El Menahil International School hires Syrian intellectuals to provide quality education. Yu Zi-cheng

Students take notes during a class at El Menahil in November 2023.

Educational empowerment

The Syrian civil war has dragged on for nearly 13 years, resulting in 300,000 fatalities and displacing more than 13 million people. Türkiye hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, providing shelter for as many as 3.7 million people.

In 2014, Tzu Chi volunteers in Türkiye, including Faisal Hu (胡光中), Nadya Chou (周如意), and Yu Zi-cheng (余自成), initiated assistance to Syrian refugee families. Alongside other efforts, they visited households, identified children not enrolled in school, and played a pivotal role in establishing El Menahil school for them. These young individuals faced the harsh realities of war and displacement during their formative years, often compelled to work to help support their families. Tzu Chi stepped in with financial aid and offered them an opportunity to pursue an education. This support not only alleviated the economic burden on their families but also became a source of empowerment, allowing these young people to envision a brighter future despite the adversities they had experienced.

“El Menahil is more than just a school,” said Dana Salem, the director of the student affairs office in the school’s elementary division. “Here, I learned about love and had the chance to become a volunteer. We share love with both teachers and students, navigating the days of overseas displacement together.”

Salem enjoyed a comfortable life before the civil war, believing it would remain that way. Who could have predicted the eruption of conflict and the subsequent upheaval of their lives? She encountered difficult challenges after arriving in Türkiye, which continued until she secured a teaching position at El Menahil.

Salem emphasized that El Menahil provided Syrian children the opportunity to study Arabic, something that regular schools in Türkiye didn’t offer, helping the youngsters reconnect with their mother tongue. In fact, the school offers education in three languages: Arabic to preserve the cultural roots of Syrian students; Turkish to assist their integration into Turkish society; and English to facilitate international connections. Additionally, the school provides elective Chinese courses, as many students aspire to communicate directly with Dharma Master Cheng Yen, the founder of Tzu Chi.

Tzu Chi’s assistance to the students extends beyond their time at the school. If graduates are accepted into university but face financial challenges, the foundation offers monthly living stipends ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 Turkish lira (US$34 to $103), as well as a 30 to 50 percent subsidy on tuition fees. All this is to assist students in successfully completing their education and improving their prospects for securing stable employment after graduation.

El Menahil currently boasts over 5,000 students spanning grades one through 12, both on-site and online, with approximately 300 faculty and staff members. Elham Haddad, the school’s director of distance education, explained that online learning includes some 3,000 students, including those unable to leave Syria and women who must stay home. When the new campus is completed in the future, there will be an additional private high school for underprivileged Turkish students.

An essential aspect of El Menahil is that the Syrian educators serving at the school not only teach students but have become important participants in Tzu Chi’s charitable endeavors. Besides helping the foundation provide aid for their fellow compatriots and underserved Turkish people, they also take on international missions, such as traveling to Lebanon to help people affected by the Beirut explosion and to Poland to assist Ukrainian refugees. This work allows them to transition from recipients of aid to contributors, further enriching their lives.

Personnel from El Menahil International School visited Tainan Tzu Chi Senior High School in October 2023, signing a memorandum of understanding between the two schools. Chen Da-sheng

Tokens of appreciation

The personnel from the school who visited Tzu Chi’s facilities in Taiwan in October 2023 had already obtained Turkish citizenship, allowing them to travel abroad. While the primary focus of their visit centered on the exchange of educational experiences, the most eagerly anticipated part was meeting with Master Cheng Yen. During their time with the Master, they recounted the pain of being unable to return to their homeland, the emotional toll of being separated from loved ones, and the uncertainties surrounding their future. Almost every one of them became emotional, choking up or breaking into tears as they shared the pain of loss and the joy of reunions.

“I’ll never forget that day,” said Elham Haddad, the director of distance education. “When the school where I worked in Syria was bombed, many people died in front of me. Everything was covered in blood. Stepping over bodies, I was so afraid I would see my own child. It wasn’t until I found my daughter crying in a corner that my heart eased. Holding her tightly to me, I knew that we had to leave our homeland.” Haddad added that, with Tzu Chi’s help, his children had gained admission to the best university in Türkiye. On one occasion, he overheard them talking to each other: “Tzu Chi helped us, how can we repay them?” “Don’t worry, after graduating from dentistry, we’ll join Tzu Chi’s International Medical Association and help people around the world. That’s how we’ll repay them.”

Ziad Zamzam, the director of student affairs, shared his profound bewilderment about the war. “We are a peace-loving people; we never imagined that one day, war would find us.” He revealed that he had crossed into Türkiye in 2017, but it was only when he connected with El Menahil that he could finally resume his beloved teaching profession. “With a job and income, I was able to bring my wife and children to Türkiye. I am grateful to Tzu Chi and everyone for standing by us through these challenging years.”

After the war erupted, Vice Principal Ahmed Aliyan’s brother and uncle died after enduring cruel torture. Two years later, Aliyan received a photo of his deceased brother, with a number written on his forehead. Fearing for their lives, Aliyan and his family decided to flee their home country. “Ten of us were smuggled into Istanbul, including six children from my brother and me, along with our parents. We didn’t know what to do next. I was almost 50 years old at that time, and no factory was willing to hire me. Eventually, Tzu Chi gave me an opportunity, and I became a teacher at El Menahil.”

He started volunteering for Tzu Chi on his very first day at work. He visited Syrian refugee families after school every day until ten at night. After the Beirut explosion in 2020, he represented Tzu Chi in relief efforts, distributing items to those affected, including blankets. “At the distribution venue,” he said, “memories flooded back from several years before when I received five blankets from Tzu Chi. Our whole family felt warm, inside and out, that night.”

Currently, the most significant challenge facing the school’s faculty and staff is the surge in rent. The influx of quake survivors into Istanbul after the devastating tremors in southern Türkiye in February 2023, coupled with inflation, has led to a sharp increase in rental costs. If they can’t pay the rent for their homes, they face immediate eviction. With rent nearly matching their monthly salary, they have to tighten their belts to send money to their families in Syria, making every day a financial struggle.

Muhammed Munir Amino expressed his sorrow, saying, “Going back to our home country isn’t an option. Life there is very difficult.” He explained that even going out to buy food was dangerous—they ran the risk of not returning.

Despite the challenges they face, they are very grateful to Tzu Chi for offering them unwavering support along the way, even increasing their pay to try to make their lives easier. As a token of their appreciation for the foundation, the school personnel brought gifts to Taiwan. These gifts included treasured wooden crafts and hand-knitted creations by mothers, along with drawings by students. Volunteer Faisal Hu, who accompanied the Syrian educators to Taiwan, highlighted Tzu Chi’s significance to them: Tzu Chi helped them transition from losing everything due to the war to regaining their human dignity. In the words of Dana Salem: “We left our homeland, arrived in Türkiye, and found a new home in Tzu Chi.”

A representative from El Menahil International School takes a selfie with students at Tainan Tzu Chi Senior High School in October 2023. Chen Da-sheng

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