In January and March of this year, I carried out two missions to Turkey at the request of a Geneva NGO with which I regularly work, the RET (Refugee Education Trust).
An educational programme for young Syrian refugees
Nearly 3.3 million Syrian refugees benefit from temporary protection in Turkey, including more than 1.4 million children and young people. It should be noted how much these figures prove the generosity of the Turkish people towards their Syrian neighbours in contrast to all European countries that live in fear of being invaded by refugees.
RET is developing an educational programme for young Syrian refugees in south-eastern Turkey, not far from the Syrian border. This programme aims to meet the needs of the most vulnerable children and young people through appropriate education and protection services and interventions. It is designed to meet the following general objective: "To improve the life prospects and increase the resilience of refugee children and youth and the host community affected by the Syrian crisis in Turkey".
The programme is implemented in 4 educational centres located in the provinces of Şanliurfa and Mardin, where the concentration of Syrian refugees is the highest in the country: 400,000 at Şanliurfa (17.5% of the total local population) and 93,000 in Mardin (10.9% of the total local population).
The centres offer young people 4 main activities:
- Recreational and psychosocial activities
- Learning life skills (communication, problem solving, assertiveness, critical thinking, cooperation, etc.)
- Awareness-raising and social cohesion activities to raise awareness of issues affecting the community
- Social action projects
Through evaluations of these activities, best practices developed in the field and lessons learned, the theme of youth empowerment emerged.
Indeed, young people who participated in the centres' activities were selected and trained to play the role of socio-educational facilitator for other young people. Their role is to prepare and lead activities to raise awareness of social issues among young people, enable them to acquire life skills and design and implement small social action projects in the community.
The RET had asked me to analyse the practice of activity centres in order to develop a model of youth empowerment that could be theorized and replicated.
It is important to note that the centres' facilitation teams are composed of Turkish and Syrian employees and volunteers who work in the best spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation.
The concept of Empowerment
At this point in my account, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by "empowerment" of young people. Empowerment is built from the word power. It is about giving a person some power or making them realize that they have power.
Researchers define the term enpowerment at both the individual and collective level.
- At the individual level, psychological empowerment focuses on building individual capacities, in particular self-control, a proactive approach to life and a critical understanding of the socio-political environment in which we live (Zimmerman, 1995; Zimmerman, 2000).
- At the collective level, (collective empowerment) empowerment concerns families, organizations and communities. It involves processes and structures that improve members' skills, provide them with the mutual support they need to make changes, improve their collective well-being and strengthen intra- and inter-organizational networks and links to improve or maintain the quality of community life.
How did the concept of empowerment come to be used in educational programmes?
Historically, one of the main functions of youth programs has been rehabilitation or control (e.g., keeping youth off the street).
More recently, positive youth development perspectives have been expanded to focus on youth empowerment. It is no longer a question of rehabilitating young people or correcting their behavioural problems, but of promoting positive youth development and capacity building through activities that contribute to the well-being and development of the community. In other words, young people are no longer seen, a priori, as sources of problems, but as contributors who possess assets and who will be able to develop their skills in order to make a positive contribution to the community.
Instead of confining young people to the status of minors who need to be protected and excluded from real life until they develop and mature, the challenge is to give them a voice and opportunities to contribute to the well-being of the community, so that they can become more responsible and acquire new skills.
Three possible lens in working with young people
UNICEF uses an image that provides a clear picture of the different possible attitudes towards young people. They can be considered from three different lens:
- Young people are considered as a target group. We work FOR young people by perceiving them as beneficiaries.
- Young people are considered as collaborators. We engage WITH young people by perceiving them as partners.
- Young people are considered as initiators. They are capable of initiative. Young people are supported by being given status and responsibilities as leaders.
Obviously, each of these lens involves different participatory practices. In lens 1, young people's participation in decision-making processes is limited. At most, they are consulted.
In lens 2, they are given the opportunity to participate in decisions. We agree to share power with them.
In lens 3, it is young people who take the initiative and make decisions. Adults only play a support and advisory role.
How can we meet the needs of young people?
When I analyzed the practices of the facilitation teams in the 4 centres, I noticed that young people were generally considered as beneficiaries. Some of them had been selected to be partners, integrated into the facilitation teams. But, like adults, they addressed other young people as beneficiaries. They consulted the young people, taking their opinions into account as much as possible, but without really involving them in the decision-making process. Young people were invited to "consume" the activities offered by the centres, moving from one to the other without any interactive logic. For example, some youth enrolled in recreational activities and then moved on to life skills workshops. Some others engaged in community service activities prepared and planned by adult facilitators without a clear understanding of the benefits that life skills development could bring to them in this type of action. There was therefore no interaction or educational logic between the different activities proposed.
By working with the educational teams, I helped them to become aware of this situation. Together, the needs of young people were analysed, especially during adolescence, and how youth participation in activities and decision-making addressed these needs.
- The young people were looking for a stable identity. They wanted to obtain new roles with a real meaning for the community.
- Regular participation in the activities offered by the centres allowed them to receive positive encouragement and recognition of their abilities. Through these activities, they could acquire new skills and develop social connections with other young people and adults who were positive role models for them.
- This resulted in real benefits for young people in terms of personal development: seeing their abilities recognized by others, experiencing a sense of personal effectiveness, developing a better self-esteem, acquiring a positive identity.
Empowering young people through a new educational strategy
The facilitators became aware of the links between youth empowerment and personal development. As they reflected on their practice from there, they discovered the need to develop a new way of operating the centres to enhance youth development opportunities.
One certainty emerged: the different activities had to follow one another in a precise order to allow a cumulative educational effect from one to the other. For example, if, in a centre, young people registered directly for the activity "Social Action Project", without having previously followed the activity "Social Cohesion Modules", which aims to make them think about the problems affecting their community, they might propose project ideas that were simply recreational activities: "Doing an outdoor activity, going camping, etc.
If young people are allowed to register for the different activities in any order, with no link from one activity to another and no logical order between them, there is no cumulative effect from one activity to another and the educational impact is limited. Moreover, young people are content to "consume" the activities, depending on the impulse of the moment, without really being involved.
The educational teams then proposed to organize and propose the activities in a specific cycle of youth empowerment to allow a cumulative educational effect:
- The first phase of the cycle is recreational activities. They make it possible to welcome young people in a welcoming and safe environment. They gain confidence, get to know each other and gradually form a real group. During this time, trainers and educators can observe young people, note their interests, notice the affinities that are being formed and identify those who are willing to act as mentors and team leaders to organize and structure the group.
- The group can then be proposed to engage in training activities: life skills modules to acquire the skills for real participation and social cohesion modules to become aware of the problems and needs of the community.
- The young people are then able to build a social action project together, plan the activities to carry it out, decide on collective rules to organize the common work and share the roles necessary for the implementation of the project. There is an equitable sharing of power between adults and youth. A real partnership between adults and youth is being established.
- At the end of the cycle, the progress made by young people and the skills they have acquired are recognised. For example, a Young Citizen certificate attesting to the skills acquired by young people and their commitment to community service.
A model of youth empowerment is emerging. It is broadly in line with Louise B. Jennings' Critical Youth Empowerment Model (Jennings 2006). Indeed, this American researcher identifies 6 key elements for youth empowerment:
- A welcoming and safe environment;
- Meaningful youth participation and engagement;
- An equitable sharing of power between young people and adults;
- A commitment to critical reflection on interpersonal and social processes;
- Participation in social processes to bring about change and individual and collective empowerment.
I have developed a training program for adult facilitators to implement this model. RET will use it to replicate the model in other parts of the world to improve the quality and impact of its educational programme for young refugees.