Syrian refugee children: a struggle for education

Education is highly valued in Syria. So much so that families are risking their lives to ensure their children can go to school.

Oula Abu-Amsha was a professor for computer science at the Higher Institute for Applied Science and Technology in Damascus, Syria. In summer 2012 she and her three children fled to Lebanon. There the children attended private school, but still struggled with the language barrier (used to being taught in English and Arabic, their classes were now in French). Abu-Amsha soon realized that many other children were facing similar – or worse – problems. As a researcher, she wanted to find out why, and what could be done. She speaks with us about her pilot study that was funded by the World Bank in 2014.

ResearchGate: How important is education to Syrians?

Oula Abu-Amsha: Very! This was surprising for UNHCR and other non-government organizations. They keep saying the Syrian war changed their vision of what refugees need in terms of education. Before the war, these organizations only thought about providing primary education and potentially some vocational training for refugee people. But Syrians are asking for more – many refugees are even asking for higher education. That’s because education was available for everyone before the war. It wasn’t necessarily a quality education, but it was available. It was free up to the age of 15 years. For high school you’d have to pay a small, symbolic fee. And even university was more or less free.

There were schools in every community. Children went to school, ideally got good grades and went on to university. This was the ultimate path for every child. All parents dreamed of sending their children to university and it wasn’t unrealistic. But with the war, the children missed school and missed university.

For example, there was this one boy, he was only 15, which is 9th grade in Syria. All students at this level need to pass a national exam to get a certificate and go on to high school. When I spoke to his  mother a few months ago she told me that because he was denied access to school in Lebanon last year, the family decided to send him back to his village in Syria – just so he could get his certificate!

Now the boy is stuck there and was unable to pass his exam because the fighting resumed where he was. He’s not able to get back to Lebanon neither, because he wasn’t able to obtain the ID he needs to enter Lebanon. So he’s in his village and his family is in Lebanon, all because the family wanted the boy to pass his exam in Syria. I’ve heard many stories of children – for example from Egypt or Jordan – who go back to Syria just to pass their national exams and get their college certificate or their baccalaureate.

I also know of many families who have the opportunity to leave Syria but decide to stay just because they don’t want to lose access to education. Or in some cases, more astonishingly, because they are afraid their children won’t cope in a different educational system. They’re worried about the language barrier and that their children won’t be able to seamlessly continue their education in another country. They are not aware that taking a year to learn another language is better than staying in Syria and possibly risking their whole family’s lives.

RG: How is the educational system in Syria holding up?

Abu-Amsha: I can tell you about Damascus because I’m from there. I know things are similar in other cities under regime control where schools and universities are still open. My colleagues are still working, but the system is lacking resources, and many professors have fled the country. Classes are overcrowded because schools in the suburbs are closed, which means families move to the city center and send their children to school there. It’s the same for universities – there are far more students at the universities that are still open. That’s because of students transferring from conflict areas.

RG: How did you come to study education of Syrian refugee children in Beirut?

Abu-Amsha: I wanted to do something to help, but I didn’t have any contacts in Lebanon. In fall 2013, the World Bank invited me to a workshop about the study of the resilience in education and I was supported and funded to develop a pilot study. I contacted Jusoor, a Syrian NGO that manages a non-formal education center in Beirut and did my study with them.

At Jusoor, children get taught but can’t get a degree. At the time I was there it had four classrooms, four levels. They tried to group children in classes according to their learning levels, not their age, because with the war, many of the children had missed one or two years of school, having had to move from one city to the next, from one country to another. So they were lagging behind. They were mainly taught by Syrian volunteers, not trained teachers.

Some students also went on to public or private schools. But many of those children quit the formal education and returned to Jusoor’s school. The team at Jusoor and I found this curious and wanted to find out why.

RG: Why do you think these children were dropping out of the Lebanese school?

Abu-Amsha: Some of the public schools who had funding from the UNHCR and UNICEF worked in shifts. There was a regular morning shift and a second shift for Syrian children in the afternoon. In the later one they were taught by the same teachers but among Syrian children, and with a curriculum that’s supposedly better adapted to them.

The main difference between the formal and the non-formal schools was the environment: At the time of my study, the children at Jusoor were looked after by Syrian volunteers who understood their needs and cared about them. In the Lebanese school they didn’t find this emotional and psychological support. And many of them spoke of mistreatment, mainly from the principal and teachers, rather than from other children.

Jusoor’s school was only open on 4 days a week because they lacked manpower and resources. On Fridays, children who were enrolled in Lebanese schools went to Jusoor for extra-curricular activities and help with homework.

I ran two focus groups to find out why the children were dropping out of school. One group consisted of children who were able to cope in the Lebanese system and went to Jusoor on Fridays; and a second group out of the children who went back to Jusoor full-time and stopped going to the Lebanese school altogether.

The first striking observation was that girls were coping much better. The first group that attended the Lebanese school was made up of ten girls and two boys. In the group of children who dropped out of Lebanese school there were 10 boys and two girls.

This was the first finding that was very interesting and might be related to how the children are raised. Girls are often told to keep a low profile and do their thing. The boys are more expressive and more violent, and don’t accept mistreatment.

There was another interesting finding, which I discovered talking with teachers at Jusoor. The families of the children who dropped out of the Lebanese schools thought they didn’t need to worry about the education of their children while they were in Lebanon because they were expecting to get back to Syria soon. The parents of the group who stayed in school were more worried about their children’s education.

In fact, my study reveals that the combination of experiencing violence and the feeling of instability in the families added to the discrimination at school, and made it difficult for the more fragile children to adapt at the Lebanese school.

The other issue is that, at the time of the study, the Lebanese teachers received no training to work with Syrian children who are refugees, displaced, have seen horrible things, and escaped a war. I asked a principal about this and she responded by saying they don’t need any training. During our discussions, her weariness of the Syrian children was clear. It was clear that school staff needed some support to be able to show at least some compassion with these children.

RG: How will not getting (a proper) education influence the children’s future?

Abu-Amsha: UNICEF speaks of these children as “the lost generation” because many of them are out of school. It’s difficult in Lebanon because the public school system has its own problems. Most Lebanese parents send their children to private school, which can be very expensive.

So many children not getting an education is a real catastrophe that will bounce back at us in a few years. The NGOs, UNICEF and UNHCR are aware of that. They are trying to do things to help the situation but it’s overwhelming: there are too many children out of school. I don’t know how things will be fixed. When I think about it I’m rather depressed.

RG: Are your results transferable to other countries, other contexts? And what could the research community do to help?

Abu-Amsha: What can be transferred is the importance of Syrian volunteers being in contact with refugee children. What’s also transferrable is the importance to maintain communication with parents. Teachers need to understand parents’ needs and their idea of education, and try to explain to them what they can expect from new educational systems. A lack of communication is dangerous: Teachers might think that parents don’t care about education, which is not true. And families could feel like the education system is against them – leaving them humiliated. This is what happened in Beirut.
I think the research community can help by working on teacher training programs that tackle the needs of traumatized children with long periods out of school. It may be impossible to give all refugees and displaced Syrian children a proper education at present and during this acute crisis. But if the international community helps us at training good Syrian teachers, we could rescue the education of a good percentage of our children and recover rapidly as soon as the war ends.

Feature image courtesy of Patrick Savalle