Solace in a clinic, hope in a school

07 Jan 2019 / 10:29 H.

ISTANBUL: For many, a clinic is for the sick, a place they would rather avoid. But on one street in the Sultangazi district of Istanbul stands a clinic where many come to find solace.

This is the Tzu Chi Foundation free clinic for refugees, visited by thousands of Syrians each month.

However, close to half of them do not come seeking medical treatment.

Faisal Hu, a Tzu Chi volunteer who leads the Istanbul chapter with his wife Nadia Chou, said many Syrians come to the clinic because they feel at home there, where they can meet fellow Syrians and speak their own language.

The Tzu Chi Foundation is a Taiwanese international humanitarian and non-governmental organisation with over 10 million members in 47 countries. It is operated by a worldwide network of volunteers and employees.

“They seek refuge in a foreign land, and they don’t often meet their own kind. So, many come to the clinic claiming to be sick, but the doctors find nothing wrong with them upon checking.

“They are only here because they can speak their mother tongue to fellow Syrians. They feel at home here,” he said during a recent visit to the clinic with Tzu Chi Malaysia volunteers and the media.

The clinic was set up by Tzu Chi in March 2016 after requests from Syrian refugees, who said they were having difficulties getting treatment at public hospitals as many were not able to speak Turkish.

The clinic has served close to 270,000 people since, about 400 patients each day. It also allows Syrian doctors seeking refuge in Istanbul to practise their profession, and 13 of them are currently employed there.

While the clinic provides comfort to many of these refugees, it is the El Menahil International School nearby that provides them hope.

Mustafa Al Asaad, 46, who teaches English at the school, said knowledge was the only “weapon” left for Syrians following the war that forced many of them out of their country, and killed countless others.

“We don’t have chemical weapons or firearms to fight back, so our best hope is through education. We can’t defend our country except by learning. We will go back someday and rebuild our country.

“There is always hope. And it is in this school that we create the belief and hope of a better future for the children,” he said.

Similarly, for Najwa Muhammad Khalaf, 15, it is education that keeps her going, despite losing her mother, all nine siblings and both her legs in the war in Syria over two years ago. Her father was kidnapped by militant forces when she was 10.

Speaking to the Tzu Chi volunteers, Najwa recalled how she had travelled with a relief convoy to Istanbul in 2017 after spending a year in a hospital in Syria, before receiving donated prosthetic legs in April last year.

But it was not until she joined the school later that she began finding strength again.

“I used to feel lonely, I had no one. But now I have friends and teachers who are very helpful and always encouraging us. And after the war, I intend to return to Syria (to rebuild the country),” she said.

When asked what message she had for other Syrian children affected by the war, Najwa said: “Keep studying, and never leave school.”

Najwa and Mustafa are just two of some 700,000 Syrian refugees currently in Istanbul, with over three million others in other parts of Turkey.

Tzu Chi, which has about 1.7 million members who each contribute RM5 monthly in Malaysia alone, spends about US$540,000 each month for the refugees in Istanbul.

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