Long-distance tutoring connects McGill students to Syrian refugees with the Syrian Kids Foundation

Over the Internet, McGill students are preparing Syrian refugees in Turkey to take English language proficiency exams. The tutoring is facilitated by the Syrian Kids Foundation (SKF), an organization founded in 2012 to support Syrian refugees in Turkey. Through its flagship project, the Al Salam School, the SKF provides over 1,800 Syrian refugee children living in Turkey with an education. 

The SKF was created in response to the Syrian refugee crisis—the mass displacement of Syrians following the outbreak of civil war in 2011. Faisal Alazem, co-founder and executive director of the SKF, felt moved to create the program after visiting Turkey in person and witnessing the suffering of Syrian refugee children. 

“During a visit to Turkey with friends, we realized that there were so many kids that were of school age that were in the streets trying to make a living, sometimes working, sometimes trying to beg for money, for bread,” Alazem said. “And you realize that there is something very aggressive happening to Syrian children.” 

While working with the children, the foundation identified other areas for their intervention. They extended their services to include free transportation to school and psychological counselling.

“It's really by interacting with the kids that we realized the need to expand social programs,” Alazem said. “[We needed] to have a psychologist speak with them because some of the things that they have seen, no human beings should ever be exposed to this, and particularly kids. Seeing a brother lose an arm, lose a leg, seeing your father deceased and returned home in a box with signs of torture, this is the everyday routine.”

At the Al Salam School, the students learn math, physics, chemistry, biology, and Turkish. The foundation also enlists the help of volunteers from McGill and other Montreal universities, including Concordia University, to teach Syrian students English via Skype.  The goal is to help refugees prepare for the Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) and the International English Language Testing Service (IELTS). These examinations are necessary to attend university in Canada, should the students wish to do so.


Ati Shohoudi Mojdehi, a fourth-year PhD student in Educational Psychology, describes her work preparing Syrian refugee students for English language exams as a fulfilling experience. 

“I have been teaching IELTS over eight years because it is sort of my passion,” Shohoudi Mojdehi said. “So this foundation has two things that are my passion: One [is] helping people, the other [is teaching the] IELTS.” 

Likewise, McGill tutor Brandon Payliss, a Masters student in  chemistry, has had a positive experience volunteering for the SKF. More than any other benefit of tutoring, Payliss is inspired by his students’ resilience. 

“It is amazing to see the progress they make despite the challenges they face,” Payliss said. “One of my students reached out to me and told me personally the things that he had experienced and some of the challenges he has faced, like losing family. It makes you quite speechless.”

Recently, the tutoring program has begun to see the fruit of their labours. In December 2016, two graduates of the Al Salam School began studying at Concordia University on a scholarship founded by the SKF. The organizers at the SKF are gratified by the perseverance and commitment to education that the students have demonstrated. 

“I think they realize that education is their passport,” Alazem said. “More and more they realize that if [they] graduate with good grades and [are] able to [attend] a good university, that is going to be [their] passport. Those are going to be [their]  credentials in the world. This is [their] hope. This is what can give [them the] closest to a normal life as possible.” 

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