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CEHD professor speaks at conference in Turkey on challenges facing Syrian refugee children

July 17, 2019

By Greg Sullivan

Fred Bemak, a professor in the College of Education and Human Development’s Counseling and Development program and founder of Counselors Without Borders, recently presented research at a major international conference held in Turkey on the plight of Syrian refugee schoolchildren during the resettlement process.

The International Migration and Education Conference, held in Istanbul in April, included invited top experts from around the world. Based on years of doing work with refugees, Bemak was invited to address the psycho-social reintegration of Syrian refugee children into schools.

“This was something that’s been along the lines of my work for decades, and it’s a critical issue in the world with the increased refugee global crisis that’s presently going on and the difficulty with so many countries, not only deciding to accept or reject refugees, but also the reactions within countries to the refugees that are resettled,” Bemak said.

Bemak’s presentation, titled “A Culturally Responsive Model of Psycho-Social Support for Syrian Refugee Children,” was based on a model that Bemak and his wife and research partner, fellow George Mason professor Rita Chi-Ying Chung, developed and has been used at various sites around the world.

Bemak and Chung, both award-winning faculty members who are set to retire in February, joined Mason in 2000 and were instrumental in building the Counseling and Development program. The program offers master’s-level training in community mental health counseling, community agency counseling, and school counseling and is notable for its focus on social justice, multiculturalism, internationalism, advocacy, and leadership.

“Many students, of course, come to study what the faculty have expertise in,” Bemak said. “And our focus fits with working with refugee circumstances, as well.”

Among the approximately 500 attendees at the conference were high-level government officials from Turkey, Finland, Sweden, Jordan, and Lebanon, as well as senior staff from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Rand Company, the World Bank, UNICEF, and many others.

Considering Turkey has the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world at nearly 4 million and the largest number of Syrian refugee children in the world (just over 1 million), there have been national efforts in Turkey and across Europe to successfully integrate Syrian children into schools through an initiative called Promoting the Integration of Syrian Children into the Turkish Education System, which led to the conference.

Bemak said the refugees face many difficulties in general, but some concerns are more specific to children.

“With children, they’re coming from very traumatic circumstances in Syria,” he said. “They’re coming with significant problems and difficulties. They arrive in Turkey, after escaping and witnessing extreme violence. These are kids who’ve seen that, and now they’ve arrived and they’re in camps with other Syrians who are also living in Turkey. The Turkish government has been struggling with how to integrate Syrian children in Turkish schools.

“There’s bullying. There’s discrimination. The kids don’t have the language skills right away, so they’re not at their previous grade level and they’re often slipping behind.”

Bemak served as a Senior Fulbright Specialist at Anadolu University in Turkey in 2012 and has taught and performed services in different countries extensively during his academic and counseling career.

“I think Turkey is doing phenomenal work,” he said. “They have an agency set up specifically for Syrian refugees and specifically for Syrian refugee children in schools. They’ve put the equivalent of many millions of dollars into these projects. And the fact that they brought senior people in the world to participate and to speak, I think tells the whole story. This conference was an attempt to say, ‘How can we do it better? We’re struggling with the integration of Syrian children.’ Syrian children had been segregated for a while, trying to get them up to speed with language. But then Turkey said, ‘Wait a second, this isn’t working as well as it can.’ Good for them for being the only country in the world to do a global conference on this with major funding.”

Bemak said that the issues facing schoolchildren during resettlement are often more complex than they seem. For instance, even if things go well, children can often acclimate more quickly, learn the language faster, get into schools, and adapt much quicker than their parents, which can lead to tensions at home.

One factor that’s been shown to make the transition smoother for those who have been resettled, Bemak said, is language acquisition. He said it’s also important for the rest of the community to understand, as best they can, what the refugees are going through.