(MissionNewswire) The Don Bosco Center in Istanbul, Turkey, led by Salesian Father Andres Calleja Ruiz, provides special programs for young refugees from Syria, as well as a number of families who fled ISIS persecution in Iraq. Because most refugees do not speak the local language, it is difficult for children to attend school and adults to find work. For this reason, the Don Bosco Center makes teaching the English language a primary focus of its programs.
Sharing a 500-mile-long border with Syria, southeastern Turkey has more than 3 million Syrian refugees, as reported by the United Nations. Salesian missionaries are providing services at three sites within Syria while also providing for Syrian refugees in Turkey. While many Syrian refugees stay in towns on the Turkey-Syrian border, many find their way to big cities like Istanbul where Salesian missionaries operate the Don Bosco Center.
The Don Bosco Center opened its doors more than 20 years ago as a temporary response to a wave of refugees from Iraq. With conflict continuing in the region today, new refugees and asylum seekers arrive every day. The center is sustained by donations and allows families to send their children there for free. More than 120 students, 90 percent of whom are Iraqi Christians, are currently attending programs there. Students have access to sports and dance programs intended to help them connect with their peers and find enjoyment and comfort in their new surroundings. In addition, the program provides counseling both for youth and their families to help them overcome the challenges and traumas they may have faced.
“Salesian missionary work in Istanbul serves a critical purpose providing refugees links to service providers and comprehensive assistance as they transition, for an unknown period of time, into local society,” says Neill Holland, program officer at the Salesian Missions Office for International Programs. “Without a doubt, the biggest Salesian success is the safe space created for youth who have experienced trauma in their home countries. At the Don Bosco School and community center, refugee youth take part in recreation activities with Turkish youth which allows them to move beyond their hardships while giving them a chance to forget their worries and be children once again.”
Don Bosco Center is the only Salesian presence in the country. Salesian missionaries have had to adapt to local laws and customs. In Turkey, Catholics represent only 0.02 percent of the population and number less than 15,000.
“We have five Salesian missionaries in Turkey, two of whom are quite old, and the others almost newly-arrived, but we have made the effort to speak Turkish and to cultivate Turkish vocations. We work at the Catholic cathedral, which was entrusted to us 25 years ago. There, we celebrate mass in four languages: Aramaic, English, French and Turkish,” explains Fr. Calleja, who has been a Salesian missionary for 35 years, 25 of which has been spent in Turkey.
Salesian missionaries primarily focus on the Christian families from Syria and Iraq, but there are also Pakistani, Nigerian, Kazakh and Iranian families that seek services from the Don Bosco Center. Salesian missionaries never refuse anyone knocking at their door, but they cannot directly seek out those in need to avoid accusations of proselytizing.
“Refugee families arrive with nothing. Everyone goes through the UN High Commission for Refugees’ office to obtain the status as political refugees, and they also have to look for a means to survive and where to work,” explains Fr. Calleja. “We welcome the children in the parishes with Salesian activities and want them to speak English because it is their hope for the future when they then go to Australia or Canada. They stay with us for a year or two, and we have been able to create a welcoming atmosphere in which they feel at ease and comfortable, despite the traumas they bring with them and the violence they have seen.”