How a Turkish high school student changed the lives of Syrian children


At the European Parliament in Brussels, the Maya Foundation, a Turkish charity working with Syrian refugee children, presented Project Life, “Tut Elimi” in Turkish.

Syrian children have been suffering from constant trauma for the past five years and it took the son of a wealthy family from Istanbul, high school senior Emir Özsüer, to raise awareness about their suffering in Europe.

Explaining that the Syrian refugee crisis had a major impact on him, Emir told me the story behind Project Life:

“I knew that Turkey had welcomed millions of Syrian refugees and attended to their needs. But I wasn’t personally aware of the challenges, especially for Syrian children, until a scared refugee kid showed up next to my brother’s car. Faced with the unfortunate child’s suffering, I started working on this project. And I’m grateful to my parents for believing in me and giving me all the support I needed.”

A few minutes later, I realized that Emir’s interest in Syrian refugees is also related to the recent death of his grandfather, İlyas Özsüer, a leading Turkish industrialist. The late İlyas Özsüer was an immigrant from Macedonia who sought refuge in Turkey. Upon his passing, Emir and his mother Esra joined forces to launch the Maya Foundation, a charity seeking to alleviate the suffering of children who survived the Syrian civil war.

Esra Özsüer, the Maya Foundation’s director, said a large number of experts offered to work with them and called on the world not to keep silent in the face of human suffering:

“My son came up with the idea of helping Syrian children and I urge everyone to see the situation in Syria from the perspective of mothers and children, not politicians. There are a lot of things to be done. Members of the European Union, in particular, can and should contribute more.”

What started out as a high school student’s dream eventually gained recognition from European institutions and secured funding from Turkcell, Turkey’s leading cellphone operator. Making generous contributions to social responsibility projects around the country, Turkcell CEO Kaan Terzioğlu said Syrian refugees are crucial to them. “We are familiar with the challenges of immigration and the opportunities that a fresh start entail,” he said. “Almost all Turkish families have a history of immigration. This isn’t a time to tell Syrians, who are faced with a major tragedy, to go back. We should instead strive to make their presence in Turkish society valuable. The Maya Foundation’s project focuses exactly on this task and they set an example for the European Union and the rest of the world. We just hope that people like Emir will emerge around the globe.”

The Maya Foundation and Emir did not just deliver a presentation in Brussels, they also set up an exhibition at Bozar, a famous art gallery, of drawings and footprints of Syrian refugee children. I had the pleasure of walking around the gallery with Nuri Özsüer, who serves as chairman of the board of Maya Holding.

At a time when the world is busy playing games, it was inspiring to see a high school student and a non-profit organization making a huge difference in the lives of children who have escaped a war zone. European Parliament deputies Ernest Maragal, Azfal Khan and Roberta Bonazzi also deserve credit for raising the issue in Europe and supporting Project Life.



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