AKKAR, Lebanon — With children making up nearly half of its casualties — almost 40% of them under the age of 11 — the Syrian war enters its fifth year this week, forcing the world to witness a prolonged global catastrophe, or what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) calls “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.”
For many of these young Syrians, education is the fine line between survival and advancement; to others it is an inaccessible luxury or a lost dream. The education crisis — a calamity whose challenges far exceed funding issues and financial shortcomings — not only poses a threat to a lost Syrian generation, but is also weighing heavily on the educational infrastructure and future of children in Syria’s smallest neighboring country, Lebanon.
“Every time you have war and lack of education, you have years that the country is losing,” Audrey Nirrengarten, the education officer with UNHCR in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor.
“We have realized that the way these people are being taught and educated will affect education in Lebanon and other host communities as well,” she said.
As of March 2015, the UNHCR reports that Lebanon is home to 1.2 million registered Syrian refugees. However, with the inclusion of unregistered refugees, this number increases to approximately 2 million Syrians in a country whose own population is just over 4 million.
“The Lebanese education system is already not the best and we are still facing some problems at the basic level — and now with the Syrians within our schools it is of course an overload on us,” Sonia el-Khoury, the director of the Department of Counseling and Guidance at the Ministry of Education and the coordinator in charge of the Syria response, told Al-Monitor.
Based on UNHCR reports, 400,000 Syrian children between the ages of 5-17 are registered in Lebanon and only 30% of them are receiving proper education. The UN reports that, as of March, “in Lebanon, there are more school-age refugees than the entire intake of the country's public schools.”
Today, sectarian violence, domestic political upheavals, unemployment, economic challenges, the huge influx of refugees and regional unrest are some of the main contributing factors to Lebanon’s volatile socio-political landscape. Such factors not only pose a challenge to every part of Lebanon's social fabric, but perhaps no impact is more enduring than that facing Lebanon's education sector — not only for the Syrian children but also the Lebanese, whose numbers are outshined by the large influx of refugees.
As the crisis continues, all parties agree that the lack of funding is a top obstacle. However, many other hurdles remain that further jeopardize educational opportunities for both Syrian and Lebanese children.
Curriculum complexities, language barriers, cultural divides, financial difficulties, bullying, exclusion of those with physical and mental disabilities and distance to schools are some of the factors preventing Syrian and Lebanese children alike from accessing education.
In Syria, teaching is exclusively in Arabic, while in Lebanon — depending on the school — some courses are taught in English or French. This is a particular problem for older children and those who have missed a few years of school due to displacement.
“We have felt how the integration of the Syrian students within the Lebanese schools is influencing our own education system,” Khoury said. She recalled visiting a school in one of the impoverished areas of Mount Lebanon, where she witnessed a class of second-grade Syrian students being taught the basics of French pronunciation two months into the school year. After Khoury asked the teacher, “What about the Lebanese children?” the teacher responded with a nod saying, “Nothing. They are getting bored. But I have to bring the Syrians a little on board to at least understand.”
Khoury explained that as a result, Lebanese families — who themselves suffer financially — are taking up loans to pull their students out of public schools and enroll them in private schools. “Not because of discrimination issues, but because they don’t feel comfortable with how it’s pulling us back,” Khoury said.
All public school tuition fees for refugees are covered by the Ministry of Education and UN agencies, but still, many Syrian parents are forced to send their children — as young as age six — into the workforce to help their poor and often large families make ends meet.
UN reports indicate that in areas closer to the Syrian border, this problem can also lead children — especially boys — to consider returning to Syria to join armed groups.
While many believe that Syrian children are often the sole victims of discrimination and bullying, Khoury explained how the crisis also takes a toll on Lebanese children. “In the early stages of the crisis, UNHCR and UNICEF would come in and distinguish between the Syrians and the Lebanese by giving them things like stationery, coats and bags,” Khoury said. “A lot of the Lebanese children come from very poor families, so imagine you go in and you give juice, a sandwich or a coat to one child and not to the other — they were also bullied.”
While the complexities of the education crisis in Lebanon don't seem like they will subside anytime soon, private civil-society foundations and nongovernmental organizations like Al-Hadatha foundation have set up private schools to help alleviate the ongoing education crisis in their communities.
Funded by the United States Agency for International Development and later supported by the Danish Refugee Council, the general director of Al-Hadatha foundation, Zaher Obeid, and his team helped set up the Naseej school in the northern Lebanese city of Akkar, which is just 30 minutes from the Syrian border and home to over 45,000 refugees, according to Obeid.
The number of Syrian students at Naseej has doubled within a year, reaching 860 children from the initial 400. At Naseej, they teach the Lebanese curriculum (Arabic and English) and the children are not responsible for any tuition.
“This is beyond just education and schooling. Our numbers increased because we provided these kids with a safe haven and comfortable environment,” Rihab Hoblos, a senior administrative manager at Naseej, told Al-Monitor.
However, Obeid told Al-Monitor that funds have decreased after the summer, and for the past few months almost all expenses are directly coming from Al-Hadatha foundation. He is not sure how long that can last.
Nirrengarten explained that “curriculum” is a sensitive topic for multiple reasons, with the main one being political. The ministry does not want to get involved in the politics of the Syrian curriculum or create a new version exclusively for them. Rather, it aims to find ways to help Syrians adapt to Lebanese curriculum to qualify for certification in Lebanon. “For instance, the curriculum of the Syrian opposition is taught in Turkey, but here the ministry is very cautious of such decision-making,” Nirrengarten said.
The crisis in Syria has surpassed the “emergency” stage, yet Syrian needs remain as crucial as they were in the early days of the conflict. While emergency funding and global haste to provide aid reduces yearly, many, including those involved in the Ministry of Education, UN agencies and the private sector, agree that providing education should be approached holistically. “The idea now is not to deal with individual needs but to create a resilient approach to integrate with the community and prepare the community and the country to deal with the refugee crisis, not just now, but moving forward,” Nirrengarten said.
Nirrengarten added that since the appointment of Elias Bou Saab as minister of education in 2014, “a new vision has been created to not only deal with the Syrian crisis, but to also improve the quality of education for Lebanese children.”
This includes the launch of a three-year strategy called “Reaching All Children with Education,” which aims to enroll more than 400,000 children in school by 2016. The first prong is the creation of a second shift in public schools that will specifically target Syrian children and their needs. Another prong, known as the “Accelerated Learning Program,” is geared toward those Syrian children who have missed more than a year of school and need a more intensive catch-up on coursework. All the funding comes from UN agencies and other donors and is set to be managed cohesively through the Ministry of Education.
“You know, three years ago we could say, OK, we don’t know what to do, but now we have everything planned to cover everyone cohesively, and the only problem that remains is funding,” Khoury said.