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Educating Syria’s Lost Generation of Children

By Elizabeth Whitman | September 20, 2013

It's the second day of school, and the excitement is palpable. The girls in School No. Three in Za'atari—the main Syrian refugee camp in Jordan—are begging to know when the books will arrive. They don't have much longer to wait. A pickup truck stacked high with bright blue backpacks filled with books rolls in. Young men in neon yellow vests begin pulling the bags out of the truck bed and carrying them to classrooms.

In one class of eighth graders, one girl is disappointed. "These have been written in," she notes, holding up one of her books with blue ink scrawled across part of a page. Others do not seem to mind that the books have had previous lives. They eagerly unzip their new bags, spreading Arabic, English, science and math textbooks across their desks.

Currently, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that more than one million Syrian children are refugees—half of the total Syrian refugee population. In July, the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui, warned that these children are being forced to bear the burdens of Syria's civil war, now in its third year. "They are full of anger," she cautioned. "And if it continues, we will face a generation of illiterates."

According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), 8,750 children of Za-atari's 120,000 people are attending the camp's three main schools. UNICEF oversees education for the Syrian crisis throughout the region and in Jordan, where it works primarily with Save the Children Jordan and the Ministry of Education. Even more children have registered for school, and UNICEF expects those numbers to increase.

The schools can accommodate 15,000 students—half of Za'atari's 30,000 school-aged children. UNICEF maintains that about 180,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children live in Jordan, both in and outside the camps, but only 80,000 are presently in school. While it is a Herculean undertaking to ensure that the four million children affected by Syria's war enroll or remain in school, UNICEF and other aid organizations view it as vital, both for the children and for Syria's future.

"To Rebuild Syria"

The caravans that serve as classrooms at the Za'atari school are sparse, with rows of desks, a few posters with motivational slogans and a whiteboard. The students themselves brighten the classroom—the girls' shirts and hijabs create a colorful sea of purple, green, red and blue—and enliven it as they chant songs and thrust up their hands to answer questions.

One girl, a 14-year-old eighth grader in a white hijab and faded purple shirt, says she wants someday to become either a doctor, so she can treat the wounded, or an engineer, "because when I go back I want to rebuild Syria." Another girl hopes to be a lawyer and defend the innocent.

"If these children are not educated, once they go back to Syria, what does that mean for the economic situation of Syria?" says Dominique Hyde, UNICEF's Jordan representative. "You will no longer have teachers, doctors, plumbers, architects."

In the short-term, for the sake of children's welfare, Hyde explains that school is essential because "having times when you go to school, come back, do homework...brings a sense of normalcy back into a child's life." She adds, "Children are so resilient, but some of these children have seen so much."

'Amar Yasser, a skinny 13-year-old who seems wise beyond his years, is a student liaison in Za'atari who encourages other students to attend school as part of a peer-to-peer awareness program run by UNICEF and Save the Children Jordan. If he learns of children in the camp who are not in school or who are experiencing school-related problems, he will write down their names and issues and bring them to the attention of one of the organizations.

Education is critical for employment, 'Amar says, "so that we can help Syria." Like many of his peers, 'Amar wants to become a doctor or an engineer to heal people or rebuild Syria when the war ends. "I can't speak a foreign language," he says in Arabic, explaining the value of education. "But if I go to school, I can learn one, and then I can speak to foreigners. That's freedom."

Never Enough

To accommodate the flood of refugee children in cities and villages, particularly in the north of Jordan, the government has begun "double-shifting" in some schools. Two school days are crammed together, with one session beginning in the morning and the other in the afternoon. In some schools, the second shift is comprised entirely of Syrians, according to Hyde. UNICEF is shouldering the extra costs of taking on Syrian students in the Jordanian school system, paying additional teachers' salaries for double shifts or covering the costs of tuition and textbooks, for example.

The last school year ended with about 40,000 children enrolled in schools in cities and villages, and Hyde hopes that this school year will see an increase of 20,000 more. "The hope of going back [to Syria] has dwindled," she says. Syrians "now know that they need to invest in their children's education," she continues. "You're seeing a big push in enrollment rates, because families know they are staying."

Still, funding shortfalls are limiting UNICEF's ability to build more schools and hire more teachers. While Hyde noted that the Jordanian government has been "tremendous in its support," UNICEF needs $11 million for Jordan alone, just until the end of 2013. Of the $161 million requested for education as part of the complete regional response to Syria's crisis, UNICEF has received $51 million. "There are still so many more children who need to be in school," Hyde adds.

Sending children to school requires effort on the part of refugee families, too. However, according Manal Wazani, CEO of Save the Children Jordan (UNICEF's main partner in education), transportation issues, lost years of schooling and a lack of capacity at local schools—even with double-shifting—often keep Syrian children at home. "Even when we disseminate information and awareness about education, the capacity of Ministry of Education schools is not enough," she says.

In addition to a back-to-school campaign, Save the Children Jordan runs hotlines that Syrians can call to report school-related issues. The hotlines feed into a bustling operations room in Save the Children's Amman office, where laptops and papers crowd desks as volunteers answer phones and record information for cases referred elsewhere for follow-up.

One Syrian mother of four who requested anonymity had traveled to Save the Children's center from the northern city of Irbid. She accompanies her daughter to and from school daily—the family lives a half-hour walk from school—because she heard a Syrian child was recently kidnapped in her neighborhood. She was upset by how much schooling her eight-year-old daughter had lost because of the war, lamenting, "She's in the second grade, but she doesn't know anything."

Another refugee living in the city of Salt was grateful that she faced few difficulties putting her kids in school. "The school is close to home, so they can walk," she says. Still, her children haven't been in school since 2011. Her nine-year-old son is in the second grade, her eight-year-old daughter in the first and her six-year-old daughter in kindergarten.

Students at School No. 3 in Za'atari wearing their new backpacks. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Whitman) - See more at: Up for Lost Time

In April, a "joint-education assessment carried out by some NGOs working on education in Za'atari shows that a high percentage of children...had dropped out from formal schools while they were in Syria or because of the relocation to Jordan," says Camilla Lodi, an education project manager with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), one of the organizations that worked on the assessment. NRC designed "a condensed emergency curricula" and runs a catch-up center in Za'atari—funded by UNICEF—to help children re-enter formal school at the proper grade for their ages.

After completing a three-month pilot phase over the summer, "the catch-up program's pre- and post-test results are currently being analyzed, and will soon be presented in a workshop with the Ministry of Education," Lodi explains.

Still, "some of the youth are not interested in attending formal schools," Lodi says. "Those are youth that are never going back to formal school, so this is where informal education steps in as an alternative." NRC is one of several organizations offering informal education, including training in vocational, transferable and life skills. Currently in the youth center, they provide tailoring, welding, barber and beautician training courses, which will help Syrians develop skills and start income-generating activities.

The longer children are out of school, the lower the incentive for their return, noted the April assessment. Indeed, for Nada and Mazen, a refugee couple whose names have been changed by their request, none of their five school-age children is in school. They have settled in a village a few hours north of Amman. "The last time they were in school was a year ago," Nada, the wife, says quietly. The kids spend their time now in the house, she says. "They sit and play."

"Maybe tomorrow," Mazen says when asked if he plans to send his children to school. He adds that he has no money for school supplies, uniforms or lunches. "Maybe after tomorrow."

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