The future of Syria may be uncertain, but the future of Syrian students and families doesn’t have to be.
Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Shannon Kay is the co-director of Small Projects Istanbul (SPI), grassroots NGO with a mission to provide access to formal and supplemental education for Syrian newcomers to Turkey. SPI’s support helps pave the way for students and families from Syria to succeed in Turkey and beyond, helping to rebuild their lives and provide them with a chance at better opportunities and a positive future. She is also the manager of the Olive Tree Centre in Istanbul, which opened in July 2015, offers weekly classes for children and a craft collective for women. We talked to her about her involvement with SPI and The Olive Tree Centre.
How did you get involved in Small Projects Istanbul?
“In 2014 I travelled to Istanbul to complete a semester in International Studies. I stayed with SPI founder Karyn Thomas and started volunteering for the centre. I have a strong passion for human rights and social justice and SPI is an amazing opportunity for me to work in community development and education, putting my passion into action. SPI is run entirely by volunteers and I have re-located full time to Istanbul and and am completing the last semester of my degree by distance.”
What’s a typical day for you in the centre and beyond?
“I plan, implement, and staff the centre’s educational and vocational programmes, which operate seven days a week. I spend the mornings on administrative tasks, and the afternoon into early evening overseeing our daily programmes. Outside the centre there is plenty of running around to do, lobbying a local business for assistance in employment or re-training opportunities, visiting a school to register a student to re-enter formal education, or negotiating the bazaar for craft supplies for our women’s collective.”
What keeps you going on those long days?
“The challenges are energising and I feel very privileged to have the opportunity to work so closely with a community of individuals whom I find extremely inspiring in their attitudes and wisdom throughout the hardships of their daily realities – these people inspire me.”
What drives you?
“Through my studies and work I have developed a deep belief and passion for the need for transformative change in our current world systems. I am attempting to enact these beliefs in my daily activities with SPI and in my life in general. This is not the kind of work that can be achieved in isolation and I have been fortunate enough to meet and work alongside countless others who share my vision.”
What’s next for the Olive Tree Centre and Small Projects Istanbul?
“We are growing so quickly we have outgrown our centre. Currently we are looking for an additional building so that we can expand our vocational education program. We are actively raising money for both the expansion of the space so we can serve more families in the neighbourhood, as well as broadening the programming.
We are trying to re-train the women who come to the centre. They are educated and have held positions like accountants or teachers in Syria, but without the right to work in Turkey and with the language barrier, it is hard for them to gain employment. We have created craft projects as a means for them to earn some money and look after their families.
We are always trying to find new ways to work with the needs of the community, and respond creatively to a constantly changing situation, it’s hard to predict exactly what the future will be for SPI. What I do know is that we will be here, with the community, working together for a brighter future.”
What’s next for Shannon?
“I love what I do and want to take this a far as I can. I am also currently completing my final year of an International Studies degree at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, with a focus on anthropology, political science and history, with a specific interest in the Middle East.
I believe that individuals can make a difference, and grassroots efforts like SPI do change lives. I challenge you to commit to one small change in your life. Be brave, see the power of your actions, and inspire those around you.”
Tucked away on a tiny side street, in an area not far from the tourist centre of Istanbul, you’ll find a small building called The Olive Tree. Like its namesake, it’s a modest but strong place, much like the people it supports. It represents a peaceful co-existence of cultures.