By Miriam Azar
“A child in school is a child protected.” – UNICEF Representative in Lebanon Annamaria Laurini
BEIRUT, Lebanon, 10 January 2014 – Many of the younger children struggle to hold a pen. Some don’t know how; others have forgotten.
“This is the first time I have gone to school in two years,” says Hanaa, a Syrian refugee. She sits in the sand in the informal settlement in eastern Lebanon that she and her family call home. Hanaa has started attending ‘non-formal’ classes held on the settlement. She wants to be a teacher or a doctor, when she grows up.
Rafah is a young Syrian refugee. She also participates in the educational activities available in her settlement in Lebanon. She has impaired vision; in her home country, she attended a special school for the blind. She’s not got access to braille in the settlement, but she can continue learning through the activities. Rafah wants to teach, when she grows up.
Ghazi is a Syrian refugee sheltering with his family in Lebanon. His mother sends Ghazi and his brother to lessons “so they’ll be able to make something of themselves”, she says. For Ghazi, who has lost an eye, educational activities have brought him out of their home and given him something else to think about, friends – hope in a future. His mother says that, although he had gone quiet, Ghazi has now started speaking with other people again.
An education crisis
In the Syrian Arab Republic, nearly 2.3 million children have stopped attending school. In the region, more than 60 per cent of the 735,000 school-aged refugee children are not enrolled in school.
In Lebanon, fewer than 25 per cent of Syrian children are enrolled in public education. According to UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Maria Calivis, “The biggest problem for a Syrian child in Lebanon is, no doubt, education.”
Most Syrian refugee children have been out of school for one to two years, like Hanaa was. For them, being out of school means the risk of exploitation and abuse increases, while the prospects for a better future diminish. The lingering conflict in their home country is jeopardizing a whole generation of children.
But the barriers to these children’s education are many. The costs of transportation and tuition may be too great for families to bear. In Lebanon, some school subjects are taught in English and French, languages Syrian children may not speak. Syrian parents may be reluctant to send their children to school out of concern for their safety.
The schools, themselves, are straining. “The public schools are crowded and lack sufficient space to accommodate the large numbers of Syrian refugees,” says Ms. Calivis.
Bringing Syrian children back to school
Last year, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, in collaboration with humanitarian actors, enabled about 30,000 Syrian children to enroll in the public school system. Another 45,000 vulnerable children – among them Syrians, Lebanese returnees and children from vulnerable Lebanese populations – accessed non-formal education.
This school year, the Ministry will accommodate another 90,000 children into the public system, with support from the international community.
Bringing school to Syrian children
Opening second shifts in public schools has helped to accommodate more and more children into the system. But, there is still an acute need for alternative schooling. Like Hanaa, Rafah and Ghazi, some 500,000 Syrian children will need to access education outside the formal system.
UNICEF and its partners, among them local NGOs Beyond and Sawa, have been scaling up non-formal education initiatives to accommodate children who have not been absorbed in the public school system. One initiative has been to bring non-formal education to tented settlements like Hanaa’s and Rafah’s. Through the classes, the most vulnerable children are able to learn and play together, and receive psychosocial support in a safe environment.
One teacher working for Sawa at an informal tent settlement talks about the changes he’s seen in children since the sessions began. Following the violence that children witness or experience, they can play out their severe distress by being aggressive with each other. Through the non-formal education, which includes psychosocial support and recreational activities, vulnerable children learn how to cope with their experiences and behave with each other.
“Recently, we’ve seen huge differences,” says the teacher. “They’ve stopped hitting each other, they are friends and things are getting better.”
“Education is the only way to break the vicious cycle of poverty and give back hope,” says Ms. Laurini.
Under the umbrella of ‘No Lost Generation’, UNICEF and partners are galvanizing the global coordinated effort it will take to protect the futures of Syrian children like Hanaa, Rafah and Ghazi. These international actors have come together to expand access to learning and psychosocial support, strengthen social cohesion and peacebuilding – and restore hope for the future.
With assistance to protect them from violence, abuse and exploitation, with education to foster their minds and build resilience – and with support to heal their hidden wounds, the #ChildrenofSyria can build a better future for themselves, their families and their societies.