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February 1, 2022

Like Rice, Like Water: Games bring Turkish and Syrian students together for the first time

“I made new friends today. We traded phone numbers”. A social cohesion event full of theatre and games brought Syrian and Turkish university students together for the first time.

Building bridges between Turkish and Syrian communities starts with the youth. In universities, students interact with each other as classmates, participate in assignments together and mingle in campus social life.

In the last days of December, a group of Turkish and Syrian students, who hadn’t met before, gathered at a social cohesion event at Hatay Mustafa Kemal University in the southeast of Turkey. The project, funded by the European Union, was coordinated by a student club at the university.

Social games saw students passing a ball while sharing facts about themselves and playing tug-of-war, where mixed groups fought for a common goal. Students shared their favourite food recipes with each other.

Syrian and Turkish students enact the ingredients from their favourite dishes during the social cohesion event by SPARK and the EU © 2022, SPARK

Zara, a Turkish sophomore student, said: “What I liked most was that we worked together for a shared aim. I experienced a feeling of unity through these games. I made new friends today. We traded phone numbers.”

Esra, another Turkish sophomore student, said: “It’s the first time I attended an event that brought Turkish and Syrian people together.”

The games provided an opportunity to students to display their tastes and preferences, their family and personal background. As the games progressed, familiarity grew, and students felt more confident to display their personalities.

Students noted that coming together and getting to know each other was important to them. For some it is a precondition to establishing friendships.

Zara (left) and Esra (right): "I made new friends today. We traded phone numbers.” © 2022, SPARK

Language barriers
Turkish and Syrian students say that the language barrier is an issue. Beyan, a Syrian sophomore student said: “In order to start a conversation or talk with someone, I need to know them first. I need to know that they have good intentions and that they are honest.”

At the end of the activity, Beyan was playing a game of volleyball, sharing time with newly acquired friends. She said: “I wasn’t able to talk to Turkish students before, because of the language difference”.

Meral, a senior year student said: “We, as [the] Turkish community, need to improve our approach. I see my Turkish classmates asking Syrian students ‘Do you speak Turkish?’ Every Syrian student here has taken the Turkish language exam and passed it.”

Taha, a Syrian junior student, said on the other hand, “I don’t mind being asked ‘can you speak Turkish?’” For Taha, the good thing about the event was that Turkish and Syrian students “shared information about our cultures. It would be good if Turkish people knew more about our culture.”

© 2022, SPARK
Taha, a Syrian junior student: “We shared information about our cultures.” © 2022, SPARK
Mustafa (right) in discussions with his group during the social cohesion event © 2022, SPARK

Cuisine brings people together
Students expressed a variety of opinions on cultures. According to Esra, the event was about bringing “different cultures” together. Şahin, a Turkish junior student, said “Syrians and Turks, we have similar cuisine. My city, Hatay, is closer to the Arabic culture in general.” Mustafa sees less differences and more similarities: “I think we are not that different. It’s the culture of Middle East. There are similarities.”

Students, divided into several mixed groups, discussed on which dishes were their favourite, they chose which one to enact and which ingredients everyone was to play as. As they made their selection students often chose dishes that were common both in Antakya and Syrian cuisine. In the end, some students acted out as boiling water, bulgur rice and salt, while other acted as ground beef, onions, walnut and spices, demonstrating the making of a dish known to Turkish students as ‘içli köfte’ and to Syrian students as ‘kibbeh’.

The silliness of enacting boiling water or as rice in a pot brought down social barriers in the students. In the end, students who has come to the venue as strangers, realised how similar they were in reality. Some become acquaintances, some become friends – connections that will contribute to the cohesion of the two communities into the future.