“Education is the best thing in life,” said a 12-year-old girl in Jeb Jannine, Lebanon. And yet, a large number of Syrian refugee children are not in school, despite efforts by governments and UN agencies.
During interviews and focus group discussions in Lebanon, 66 per cent of the 80 children asked about education said they were not attending school. If the situation does not improve dramatically, Syria risks ending up with an under-educated generation.
Against this backdrop, UNICEF has been leading the development of a strategy entitled ‘No Lost Generation.’ The strategy aims to improve children’s access to quality education and strengthen the protective environment for children. It also seeks to expand national capacity and access to education and protection for host communities, both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, by bridging humanitarian and development responses. Recognizing the stress on the public school systems, the strategy also aims to significantly expand formal education in non-traditional settings, as well as non-formal education.20
Lebanon has a population of a little over 4 million and reached a saturation point long ago, with 800,000 Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR by the end of October 2013.
As of September 2013, 270,000 school-aged Syrian children were registered with UNHCR in Lebanon. A recent education assessment found that 80 per cent of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon were not in school. 21
Shifting demographics are also at play. By the end of 2013, The number of Syrian school-aged children could exceed the number of Lebanese children who were enrolled in the public system last year.
UN agencies, working to support the Ministry of Education, aim to more than triple the number of Syrians enrolled in public schools by the end of 2013, but even if this goal is achieved, nearly 200,000 Syrian children could remain out of school.
Jordan, with a population of just over 6 million, has absorbed more than half a million Syrian refugees since 2011. As of September 2013, a total of 187,675 school-aged Syrian refugee children were registered with UNHCR: 44,649 in camps, and 143,026 in host communities. According to Ministry of Education data, 83,232 Syrian children were enrolled in formal education; 56 per cent, therefore, were not receiving formal schooling.
School drop-out is a serious problem in both Jordan and Lebanon. According to a recent World Bank report, failure and drop-out rates among Syrian children are twice the national average for Lebanese children.22 UNHCR estimates that 20 per cent of Syrian refugee children drop out of school in Lebanon —the biggest problem being among children over 12 years old.
For many refugee children, school is a safe place where they can learn new things and make friends. It helps them to restore some normalcy in their lives, and develop future goals. Parents and children spoke of teachers being very supportive and kind, giving Syrian students extra attention and assistance.
However, the influx of refugee students is taking a serious toll on the capacity of local teachers and the quality of education offered not only to the refugees, but also to Lebanese and Jordanian students.
In some schools, the entire dynamic in the classroom has changed. Not all teachers have been trained to work with refugee children suffering from psychological distress. Coupled with a lack of adequate resources, some Syrian students complained that the quality of education they receive in public schools is poor.
Some parents also reported verbal and physical abuse by teachers. Several children in Lebanon said their teachers beat them in class and “tell us bad words.”
A recent UNICEF report found that corporal punishment is widespread in Jordanian schools.23 At Za’atari camp, girls described how their teachers tell them “you have ruined your country,” cursing Syria for sending them to Jordan. Muna, 17, who dropped out of school, said, "We can't get educated at the cost of our self-respect. We fall victim to verbal abuse." , and are bundled together as Syrians even if we didn’t do anything wrong.”
UN agencies and partners train public school teachers on how to work with children who need additional support. In Jordan, UNICEF, UNESCO and partner organizations provide teacher training in camps and urban areas on coaching strategies, teaching in emergencies and supporting children who have lived through a crisis.
When serious cases of bullying, violence or discrimination by teachers or other students are identified, UN agencies and partners alert the relevant Ministry of Education to follow up with the school and, if necessary, the authorities. However, parents are often reluctant to report cases, wanting to keep a low profile in a foreign country. The number of identified cases is, therefore, low.
The Government of Jordan has generously waived tuition fees for Syrian refugee students in public schools. In Lebanon, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education covered school fees for all Syrian students in 2012. This year, the Ministry continues to pay the fees for the same number of students who were enrolled last year, and newcomers will be covered by UNHCR and UNICEF. Students must also pay a US$ 60 parent committee fee in Lebanon. UNHCR and UNICEF cover this fee for all Syrians, in addition to a small number of vulnerable Lebanese children and returnees. To the extent that resources allow, UNICEF and UNHCR also provide Syrian refugee children in Lebanon and Jordan with uniforms, books, bags and stationery.
Despite the efforts of the governments and international community, the costs associated with going to school prevent some families from enrolling their children. During a recent WFP/UNHCR/UNICEF vulnerability assessment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 660 out of 1,432 households (46 per cent) reported that they had at least one child out of school. Of these, 57 per cent said that cost was one of the reasons.24 Assessments conducted in Jordan have found that the cost of transportation can be especially prohibitive in urban settings.25
Some parents cannot afford to send all of their children to school and must make the painful decision of choosing which should attend. Staff in Lebanon said parents faced with this decision often choose to send younger children to school, with adolescent boys seeking work instead.
Classrooms in Jordan and Lebanon are overcrowded, and the growing number of Syrian students is putting the national education system in both countries under considerable strain. The situation also prevents a large number of Syrians from getting an education.
Children and parents alike spoke of their attempts to register in school, only to find that their local schools were already full. In Irbid, Jordan, all 23 participants in a focus group discussion of girls aged 12-17 said that they attended school in Syria and wanted to continue. However, only four were able to register for the new school year. Fifteen tried, but were turned away—they were told there was simply no space.
A number of assessments and surveys underline the seriousness of the problem. The WFP/ UNHCR/UNICEF vulnerability assessment in Lebanon found that in 29 per cent of 660 households reporting that one or more children were not enrolled in school, one of the reasons given was either that there was no space in school or there was no school in the community. A household survey from March 2013 in Mafraq Governorate, Jordan, found that 15 per cent of 2,397 out-of-school children requested enrolment, but were placed on a waiting list.26
As of September 2013, 96 schools in Jordan had received support to increase their learning capacity through the provision of double shifts, school refurbishment and prefabricated classrooms.27 While the Government of Lebanon has expressed willingness to include Syrian children in a second shift in some public schools, it has also set a ceiling on how many can enrol in first shifts.
Even for children who are able to find a place in school, there are additional problems. Discussions with parents and children suggest that transportation is a major barrier, with distance and safety considerations keeping numerous children out of the classroom.
This is a particular issue in Lebanon, where the population is extremely dispersed. For some children living in remote villages, for example, the only way to get to school is by collective taxi. This is too expensive for most refugee families.
Many children must walk to school. Parents and protective older siblings in both countries described their concerns that pupils—particularly younger children and girls—will be unsafe or get lost. Some therefore keep them at home. Others insist on the importance of education and, though wary about safety, let them walk alone.
A group of mothers in Jeb Jannine, Lebanon, said that they worry about the safety of their children on the way to school, but asked: “What choice do we have?” They are painfully aware of the risks, as one of their adolescent sons was beaten up by a gang of locals on his way home from school.
Creative programmes are helping children get to school safely. In Mafraq, Jordan, Syrian parents at three schools set up a private carpooling system. At one of these schools, the system benefited 100 children in the last school year.
In a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, War Child Holland set up a “walking bus.” The camp, which is home to 120 Syrian families, is a 15-minute walk from school. Families used to fear for their daughters’ safety because of consistent verbal harassment. This has improved now that they walk to school together in one large group. In Ramtha District, Jordan, UNICEF provides buses to take children to school from King Abdullah Park and Cyber City.
Some organizations in Lebanon bring educational activities to the homes or communities of children who cannot otherwise attend school. The Lebanese NGO Iqra runs a “Classroom in a Bus” in the Bekaa Valley which includes a library, educational supplies and two trained teachers. They run two-hour reading and writing workshops for 14 children at a time, reaching 42 children a day. Language classes are also provided. The teachers also offer training to parents on reading out-loud activities while their children participate in the workshops, which they can carry out with children once the bus leaves.
The crisis in Syria, the journey into exile and the transition into a new life have caused many Syrian refugee children to miss months or even years of school. Some have lost the drive to start again, especially if this would entail enrolling at a lower level. A Syrian teaching assistant in Za’atari camp said he feared many children in Jordan have “lost the spirit of education.”
In Jordan, any child who misses more than three years of schooling is not eligible to enrol in formal education.
Differences between the Syrian curriculum and that in Jordan and Lebanon deter some children from going to school, or cause them to drop out.
Language is also a major issue in Lebanon. In Syria, teaching is exclusively in Arabic, while in Lebanon, classes are also taught in English or French, depending on the school. This is a particular problem for older children. It is easier for younger children to pick up a new language, and their Lebanese peers are also less advanced. Despite the difficulties in learning a new language, a number of Syrian refugee children see this as a valuable opportunity.
The exclusion of children with physical, mental and intellectual disabilities from public schools in Jordan and Lebanon, including Syrian refugees, is a serious issue, despite policies to promote inclusion. A recent assessment of 120 refugees in Lebanon—half of whom had disabilities, the others being caregivers—did not find a single child enrolled in school or other educational activities. Only a small number of those disabled children attended school in Syria.28 Recent reports from Jordan’s Za’atari camp suggest that children with disabilities generally do not go to school.29
Of the five children with disabilities interviewed during field research, none were going to school. Although the issue of parents not believing in the importance of education for children with disabilities has been reported elsewhere,30 none of the parents interviewed expressed this view. Several were upset about the lack of opportunities for their children, wishing they could go to school and be integrated into the community.
Claire Catherinet, an inclusion advisor for HelpAge and Handicap International in Lebanon, said there is a common mindset in Lebanon among Lebanese and Syrians alike that children with disabilities should be placed in specialized education facilities rather than be mainstreamed into the public system. However, this is beyond the financial reach of most Syrian refugee families. Further, in Catherinet’s opinion, while some children with severe disabilities might require specialized services, many children with sensorial, intellectual, mental or physical disabilities could, and should, be included in public schools.
Children often pick on each other for being different. In Lebanese and Jordanian schools, this is sometimes magnified, and Syrian girls and boys face blatant discrimination, bullying and violence.
This was raised as a particular issue by parents and children in Lebanon.31 A 15-year-old girl in Mount Lebanon said that “the hardest thing about school here is that we don’t feel safe.” Violence against boys can be serious—in Mount Lebanon a 13-year-old was hospitalized after being beaten up outside his school. Several mothers reported that their sons were afraid to wait outside the school and they prefer to be picked up from a nearby shop.
Discrimination is sometimes fuelled by the parents of Lebanese and Jordanian children, who fear that Syrian students are lowering the standard of education or putting their children’s health at risk. A protection officer in Tyre, Lebanon, said that following outbreaks of contagious diseases among the Syrian refugee population, children were discriminated against. She was aware of some teachers physically dividing Syrians from Lebanese students in their classroom. Parents came to one school in Tyre to make sure their children were not sitting next to Syrians. A social worker in southern Lebanon recalled Lebanese parents telling their children not to play with the Syrians “because they have head lice and scabies.”
Waleed, 13, is one of the programme’s success stories. As his family’s sole income-earner, he was out of school when the ambassadors met him. They convinced him of the importance of education, so he started attending school in the afternoons and working only in the mornings. He even joined the programme, taking to the streets of the camp in the evenings to encourage others to go to school.
There were mixed reactions among children and parents about the importance of school, though the majority saw education as a priority.
With upturned lives and uncertain futures, some Syrian children channel their energy away from education. "Our brothers are dead,' said Tamer, 17. 'How can we focus on school while our families are being slaughtered?"
Manal Eid, Programme Development Manager with War Child Holland in Lebanon, noted that it can be particularly difficult for children older than 12 to attend school—some have been out of the system for too long, feel too old to re-enter, or have been working and believe that this is a better use of their time. In Za’atari camp, 17-year-old Saif is among those who would genuinely prefer to work than go to school: “My younger siblings are in school but I’d rather work,” he said.
During interviews, several boys questioned the need for an education, or blatantly stated that they did not want to go to school. This was not only linked to their new lives as refugees. Some said they had stopped school even before the crisis because they didn’t like it, they wanted to work or they felt they weren’t learning much. Other children said that although they valued education, they did not plan to go back to school until they could return to Syria.
But again and again, children expressed their eagerness to learn—some for fun, others to make friends and many because they value education so highly. Some were all too aware of the dire consequences of not going to school. "Our lives are destroyed," said 14-year-old Nadia in Irbid. "We're not being educated, and without education there is nothing." We’re heading towards destruction.”
Some children insisted on going to school, even if they also had to work. Two boys in Lebanon, aged 10 and 11, were willing to get up at 7am, go to school, then work in a restaurant from 4pm until closing time. One boy in Za’atari camp was told by his father that he had to stop school to work. He wanted an education, so in between selling credit for mobile phones in the camp, he would secretly slip into the school. Because he did not want his father to know, he would hide his book under his clothes when he left for work in the morning.
While a few adolescent boys reported that their parents did not care if they stopped school, the majority of children and parents interviewed said the contrary. For example, Nidal, in Mount Lebanon, was a teacher in Syria before the war and understands the value of school for her 15-year-old daughter, who works as a cashier in a vegetable store ten hours a day, seven days a week and earns about US$ 350 a month. “She is an innocent child who belongs in school, but I need the rent and no one will hire me to do that kind of work,” the mother said.
Even in the face of resistance and discrimination by school staff when trying to register their children, some parents have fought to ensure that their children can go to school. One mother thinks that the local school only registered her children “because they got sick of my coming and nagging them.” She explained that “I won’t let my children sit at home and do nothing. It won’t happen.”
“We are the ambassadors of education,” said 14-year-old Safia. She is one of 12 girls and 11 boys in Za’atari camp who volunteered for Save the Children Jordan with their UNICEF-supported Back to School Campaign.
Armed with flyers, the ambassadors went from tent to tent, caravan to caravan, persuading children to go to school. Some days they reached more than 100 families a day.
“Take this chance, it’s yours! Education is important!” 15-year-old Mazoun urged. Suhair, 17, would take an even tougher stand: “Why did you waste these last nine months? You could have been studying!”
Back-to-school campaigns in both countries have encouraged children to register in school, and educated parents about the enrolment process. In Jordan, Syrian and Jordanian volunteers helped UNICEF and Save the Children to reach out to over 20,000 children in Za’atari camp and 60,000 children in host communities. In Lebanon, UNHCR, UNICEF and partners have supported a large-scale community outreach campaign, including through the development and dissemination of posters and leaflets that clearly set out the steps to enrol.
Given the low rate of enrolment by refugee children in public schools in both Jordan and Lebanon, other structured learning opportunities are crucial. During the past summer, humanitarian organizations offered catch-up classes to prepare children for the new school year. In Lebanon, 17 organizations provided summer courses for more than 42,000 children. In Jordan, 7,989 Syrians took part in UNICEF-supported summer catch-up classes in camps and urban areas.
Informal education and accelerated learning courses in both Jordan and Lebanon target children who have missed considerable time in school, remain out of school because of eligibility or other access issues, or are struggling with language or curriculum. These follow an approved curriculum, so that children who complete the courses can then enrol in public school or receive equivalency diplomas.
In an effort to keep children in school, UN agencies and partners offer remedial classes in areas such as literacy, numeracy and languages. In Jordan, 30,000 Syrians received non-formal education in the first eight months of 2013. In the 2012–2013 academic year, 41,000 Syrian students in Lebanon attended remedial classes or accelerated learning programmes.
A number of organizations in Lebanon provide vocational training to Syrian adolescents including courses in car mechanics, computer training, hairdressing, English language and electronics maintenance. These give adolescents skills that they will be able to take back to Syria, when conditions permit their safe return.
“There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
~ Nelson Mandela ~
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Syrian Refugee Children
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.
Every day, the conflict in Syria is forcing thousands of Syrian children to flee their country.