By Fran Roots
It’s the end of the summer holidays and children in the northern hemisphere are getting ready to go back to school. They are eagerly anticipating seeing their friends again, meeting new teachers, and tackling new projects and challenges together. But most Syrian children do not have this to look forward to. Since the conflict started in spring 2011, approximately 8.7 million people are displaced within Syria, many into areas inaccessible to humanitarian agencies. Over 4000 schools have been destroyed or recommissioned as shelters for internally displaced people (IDPs). 52,500 Syrian teachers have had to leave their jobs due to the fighting. The UNHCR estimates that more than 2.1 million children are out of school in Syria.
There are now more than 4.8 million Syrian refugees living in neighbouring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt), 51% of whom are children under the age of 18 (UNHCR, 2016). Across the five countries, 700,000 are estimated to be out of school.
The disruption of education for Syrian children has been one of the worst consequences of this six- year conflict. Years of schooling lost directly correlate to poorer employment prospects and increased social disadvantage in years to come, whether the children have stayed in Syria or are living as refugees. It is a cruel irony that before the conflict started, the Syrian education system was one of the best in the region, with nearly one fifth of the annual GDP invested in education, and Syria had one of the highest literacy rates per capita in the Middle East.
In Lebanon, which hosts the second largest number of Syrian refugees after Turkey, about half the Syrian children registered with the UNHCR are enrolled in some kind of formal or informal education. In 2014 the Lebanese government instigated a program called Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) to focus donor funding and support on providing spaces in Lebanese schools, in second shift (afternoon) classes. 157,984 Syrian children were enrolled in Lebanese public schools in the 2015- 16 academic year. Due to donor concern about the 180,419 others who are still not accessing any kind of education, a second initiative, called Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) was launched in June 2016. Inexplicably, the ALP targets only 30,000 Syrian children, and for the start of new school year in September, places have been found for only a third of that number.
As well as insufficient places, barriers to access education for Syrian children in Lebanon are many. The high cost or lack of transport to school, school fees, stationery, adequate clothing and footwear prevent children from attending, even if places are available. And there are other factors- for example, the Lebanese education system is based on a European model, and from Year 1 classes are taught in either English or French- very few Syrian children or their parents know either of these languages. The curriculum is very different from the Syrian one, classes are large and the Lebanese teachers are tired after having taught an intensive morning shift. Many children are traumatised and have unsettled home lives, with missing family members, precarious housing and poverty-line living conditions. It is not unusual for children as young as 7 or 8 to be working as street sellers or delivery boys to bring in a little money for the family.
The Jusoor program is one of a few NGO initiatives that directly address this huge need, by providing non-formal education to Out of School Syrian children to familiarise them with the Lebanese curriculum and learn enough English to be able to be placed in the appropriate grade in Lebanese schools. Using trained Syrian teachers, a sequenced language program and child-centered learning methods, Jusoor is able to educate nearly 1300 students a year in its 3 schools. Remedial help is provided for children struggling to make up for the years of school they have missed, and all teachers have been specifically taught how to deal with childhood trauma and unsocial behaviours. Being refugees themselves, the teachers are able to understand what the children are experiencing and do their best to provide a warm, welcoming and predictable environment in an otherwise haphazard and sometimes hostile world.
“Jusoor opens the door for Syrian refugee children to a comprehensive remedial education, which will then enable them to successfully enroll in public schools in Lebanon; otherwise they will be on the streets.” – Suha Tutunji, Academic Director, Jusoor Refugee Education Program.