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Syrian students struggle in Egypt's schools

Getting an education is becoming even harder for Syrian refugees in Egypt as some schools resist taking on more Syrian students.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt — In 2012, Egypt's president issued an extraordinary decision giving Syrians access to public schooling in Egypt and facilitating registration. Under the new conditions, students were able to enroll using only their passports and a copy of their transcripts from Syria. The process, however, has presented numerous challenges.

Sami al-Ahmad is the founder of Khatwa, a group that helps displaced Syrian students finish their education in Egypt. He told Al-Monitor that although the decision to provide free education to Syrians in Egypt was renewed for 2013-15, some changes were made. “In 2014, post-graduate education was excluded from the decision, while some institutes and so-called open education were excluded in 2015,” said Ahmad, himself a Syrian refugee. "Open education" in Egypt refers to a program that grants students flexible schedules to take courses in the evening or on weekends.

In 2016, however, the Ministry of Education failed to issue an updated decision, so some colleges assumed free education for Syrians had been canceled. Now, Syrian students at those institutes or applying there are treated the same as other foreign students, Ahmad said.

According to the pricing schedules available on Egyptian university websites, fees for foreign students start at about $1,400 per year and must be paid in foreign currencies.

The registration process for public primary and secondary schools is handled by various governmental agencies. When Syrian students apply, they receive a paper that allows them to obtain a one-year residency permit from immigration authorities for themselves and their parents.

Ahmed al-Homsi, an 11th-grade student, told Al-Monitor that he submitted a residence application, "but the slow procedures prevented me from obtaining this permit" before the school registration deadline.

Numerous Syrian parents complained to Al-Monitor about the slow pace of administrative procedures inside the Passports, Immigration and Nationality Administration and the small number of schools accepting the enrollment of their children.

According to these parents, school principals often refuse to enroll new students, citing overcrowded classrooms. Some parents believe that is just a ploy by the state to avoid issuing permits.

Omar, a Syrian father residing in Damietta, told Al-Monitor, “I went several times to one of the schools to enroll my son. During the last meeting with the school principal, he asked all parents of Syrian students to submit their applications on a specific date and when we did, he told us that no more applications were being accepted since classes were full.”

Hesham Elsangary, services division director at the Ministry of Education, claimed no Syrian students had been rejected from public schools. Any Arab student with a residency permit in Egypt is allowed to enroll "in accordance with the law,” he told Al-Monitor.

Fatima Khadr, head of the Directorate of Education in Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “We have instructions to facilitate the Syrian students’ school enrollment procedures. If students have lost their transcripts, they can take placement exams to determine their level so they can be enrolled in the appropriate classes.”

But placement exams don't always work well, said Suheib Aswad, services director at the Tadamon Center for Refugees and a teacher at a Sudanese high school in Cairo. “The placement exam covers all subjects and must be completed in only two hours," Aswad told Al-Monitor. "This means that students [often] receive low scores and are placed in classes below their actual level.”

Aswad added that according to surveys conducted by the center, these exams are a major problem for many students. He also noted that many students face violence in schools when they do get in.

Marwa Hamdi, the mother of two children from Alexandria, told Al-Monitor her 8-year-old son has been suffering from urinary incontinence as a result of being repeatedly beaten by teachers.

Ikhlas, another mother who lives in the same city and requested that only her first name be used, told Al-Monitor that when she was dropping off her 11-year-old son at school on his first day, she witnessed a fist-fight between a number of students. She said, “One student hit his peer with a piece of brick on the head, causing him a severe injury." Her son "was terrified," she said, "and I decided not to take him back again to this school.”

A Ministry of Education official denied that children face physical abuse from teachers. “We can’t say that there is a violence problem in schools based on one or two accounts," Rida Hegazy, head of the ministry's Public Education Department, told Al-Monitor. "I’ve received complaints in the past, but these are individual cases. Moreover, there are counselors in the schools that address these types of issues. Also, the ministry provides oversight in the form of inspection committees that take action if complaints are received. They also provide periodic monitoring and assess the performance of each school."

Rasim al-Atassi, a leader in the Syrian community in Egypt, told Al-Monitor 8,000-9,000 Syrian children have dropped out of school due to insufficient financial resources.

Marwa Hashem, an assistant public information officer at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, told Al-Monitor that “25,000 education grants in public schools were dispersed to Syrian students.”

She added, “The UNHCR is cooperating with the Egyptian government. In the academic year of 2014-2015, a grant of 10 million Egyptian pounds [$1.13 million] was made to improve and establish new classrooms in schools hosting the highest numbers of Syrian students.”

The UNHCR said that in August, about 85% of the 41,500 registered school-age Syrian children in Egypt were enrolled in school.

Affluent Syrian refugees prefer enrolling their children in Libyan and Sudanese schools in Egypt. Al-Monitor talked to a group of 10 Syrian high school students in the Sudanese school in Alexandria. They reported that the classrooms in their school are not overcrowded and they are well treated by their instructors. They also recalled being verbally harassed by their previous public school instructors and accused of invading the country or depleting its resources.

The female students in the group said they had been bullied by their peers because one of the instructors showed them special interest, given their difficult conditions as foreign students. Both male and female students in this group said they had been offered marijuana at least once.

Hegazy rebutted these claims, telling Al-Monitor, “If I received a specific complaint with the name of the school or students [doing or selling drugs], I would immediately file a report to have those involved charged."

The Syrian students Al-Monitor spoke with worry that their graduation certificates will not be accepted at Egyptian universities. Aswad told Al-Monitor, “The university admission of Syrian students, in particular those graduating from Sudanese schools, varies from one year to another.”

The Education Ministry's Elsangary told Al-Monitor that public “diaspora schools” — such as those serving Sudanese and Libyans in Cairo — are meant to serve those of a specific nationality, and other nationalities are not permitted to enroll.

Ahmed from the Khatwa group said Syrians with high school diplomas from private Sudanese and Libyan schools were accepted into Egyptian universities until last year, when a decision was issued that prevented them from doing so.

Yet the 2015 graduates were exempted from this decision and allowed to enroll. Mohamed Khir al-Halabi, director of public relations for the Syrian Agency in Egypt, a group that helps refugees, told Al-Monitor, “The agency got in contact with the concerned authorities and these students’ request to be exempted was approved, so they were able to enroll. About 500 such students enrolled last year.”

However, when contacted by Al-Monitor, the official spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education would not clarify the legal status of such students.

Many Syrians living in Egypt believe the optimal solution to the education crisis is to establish a Syrian school that provides accredited certificates, unlike the current Syrian educational institutions in Egypt that are merely "learning centers."

Binaat Al-Hidara School on the outskirts of Cairo is one such facility. Hani Bakhsas, the center's public relations officer, told Al-Monitor that the Syrian students who attend classes there are also enrolled in Egyptian schools.

“We have classes for all educational stages, where we explain the Egyptian curriculum, but the center does not give certificates and is not an official authority to administer exams,” he said.

These learning centers address the difficulties Syrian children face in understanding instructions given in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. The centers appoint Syrian instructors to teach elementary classes. This practice gives Syrian teachers job opportunities, as they are not legally allowed to teach at public schools and the salaries in private schools are comparably low.

Regarding the establishment of a Syrian school similar to the schools of other diaspora communities in the country, Bakhsas said, "Licensing the construction of a school requires the building to have a large surrounding space, in addition to a playground. This is a huge financial burden and we cannot afford it."

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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