From Boats to Blackboards

Shipping containers get second life as mobile classrooms for displaced people

When the Syrian civil war came to a climax toward the end of 2014, a surge of people began to flee the intense bombings in the region. Lions were ready. For more than three years Lions in Turkey have partnered with Lions in Sweden to provide aid to refugees in Turkey along the Syrian border. But it soon became clear that food and shelter wasn’t going to be all that was needed.

“We started with the distribution of emergency aid goods in a village in Suruc, Turkey, which took in 250,000 [people] in one week,” says PDG Nilgun Niord. As the number of refugees grew, Lions coordinated a partnership with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) so they could keep up with the growing need.

The food and other emergency items were life-saving, but as the days turned to months, a new problem arose. In the towns where the bulk of the refugees had landed, there was not enough room in the local classrooms for the influx of new children. It would be too difficult to add classrooms to existing schools, so Niord began working with the Ministry of Education in Adana, Turkey on other ways to increase capacity.

They decided to try shipping containers. The 40-foot containers create 300 square feet of internal space each and can be outfitted to be suitable as classrooms and placed anywhere. In Adana they were placed in the school gardens.

Lions added blackboards, projection equipment, and air conditioning to make it comfortable. “We tried it out with just one classroom first,” says Niord. Now they have 55. “It’s like we’ve added two big schools,” says Niord.

The success of the container classrooms got the Lions thinking about what else they could use them for. The portability of the containers means they are easy to place and can be moved elsewhere when no longer needed.

With funding from all Scandinavian countries in addition to the Mavi Halic and Resatbey Lions Clubs in Turkey, Lions have begun using the containers to host adult education classes, stage trauma centers, and multi-purpose meeting halls for refugees. They help parents navigate their new life in Turkey with information on legal services, and even provide practical information such as health and child-rearing methods.

The trauma centers help children deal with the violence they’ve seen, and adjust to their new life in Turkey. So far, they have provided group meetings and one-on-one therapy for more than 350 children in just a few months of their pilot program.

When people are forced from their home country, their needs are many. Most will never return to their home country. The container classrooms are one of the many services Lions in Sweden and Turkey are providing to orphans and widows in need. “Children taken into the education system will grow up integrated into society,” says Niord. And Lions will help them do it.