Director, Education Global Initiative, SCI
February 16, 2016
The statistics are difficult to fathom. There are 1.4 million children who are affected by the war in Syria who are of school age and who are living as refugees in the neighbouring countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. More than half of these children are out of school.
Over the last three years, Lebanon alone has taken into its public education system 150,000 children who are refugees from the conflict in Syria. Accommodating an additional 150,000 children in schools in the United Kingdom would be a challenge. But in Lebanon the proportions are different. In Lebanon there are only 150,000 Lebanese children in the public education system. So the influx of refugee children has meant that every state school in Lebanon has had to double in size in the last three years. Every school – double the size.
In addition, the children who are joining the schools have been subject to severe stress. They have been moved from what was once the security of their homes in Syria. They have seen things that no one – let alone a child – should ever see. And their families are under severe economic stress because of the great difficulty that refugees have finding work in Lebanon. All of these factors are significant barriers to accessing the educational system in Lebanon.
The Lebanese people deserve enormous credit for what they have already done to help Syrian children go to school: schools have introduced a two-shift system; teachers are working longer and longer hours to support the refugee children.
But it is not enough.
There are a further 150,000 children who should be in school, but are not. Although teachers have received some support to help them assist severely stressed children with learning, more needs to be done. Although there is an enormous need to provide support for the youngest children, the provision for pre-school support for refugees is pretty much non-existent.
I am writing this in Lebanon, where I came to look at the kind of support that Save the Children is providing already, as well as the support that we should be providing in the future. Education is a human right, and it is the means by which society equips children with the skills and knowledge they need to thrive in the world. It also saves lives, protects and builds peace.
The Bekaa Valley is – on a good day – a 60-minute drive from Beirut (the Syrian border is only 60 minutes away). It is beautiful: snow-covered mountains on both sides of fertile pasture.
In the gaps between the houses and on random fields in the agricultural areas, landlords have let out spaces to communities of refugees for informal settlements. These consist of flimsy shanty huts. It is the children in these settlements who we are supporting.
One of our projects involves providing early childhood support. We have helped communities find the space and the materials to run early childhood development activities for three to six year olds. The spaces are temporary. We use tents or unfinished buildings; buildings that the owner had started to build but are now unfinished shells. We rent the shell, put in polythene windows, carpets and partitions, and create a serviceable space.
We have also helped find Syrian refugees to act as facilitators (very often refugees who were fully qualified teachers in Syria) alongside facilitators from Lebanon. The centres are packed with young children. They are playing, they are singing. They are drawing and coloring.
But, above all, these children are developing their skills. They are learning how to socialize with children of their own age. They are understanding what a book is; how to hold a pencil. They are sorting objects and starting to understand basic numeracy. This is all done through fun activities and play. Activities that would be recognizable in pre-schools across the United Kingdom.
The centers are very popular with the children and with their parents. It is the sight of children engaged and happy and learning, despite the horrendous experiences they have suffered, that confirms that the work you do is having a genuine and positive impact on the lives of some of the most deprived children.
The other activity I visited was a homework support session. I was quietly skeptical about this when I saw it on my itinerary. It sounded a little trivial. But witnessing the reality made it clear quite how wrong I was.
Children from Syria are taught in Arabic. In Lebanon they are taught – after the first few years – in either French or English. Children who have left Syria have very often had to miss significant parts of their education because of instability at home or because of the journeys that they have had to take. They find learning in the Lebanese system hard. So we are helping them.
Most Syrian children attend the afternoon shift of the schools. In the morning we run sessions for a couple of hours, where they can get additional support for their learning. Save the Children's support goes well beyond simply making sure they do the exercises they have been assigned for homework. It's effectively remedial help across all the subjects that they are learning. The sessions are wildly popular. The group I visited had forty children in a small – very small - room with four teachers who were providing fantastic assistance. Despite the cramped conditions, the children were taking extraordinary steps in their learning.
Children like the ones I met in the Bekaa Valley have suffered enormously. They are facing an insecure and uncertain future. They don't have - no one has - any idea when they will be able to go back to their homes in Syria. But they are determined that they are not going to be left behind. They are determined to do what they can to learn. Their parents are determined to help them. And we are determined to make sure that they have their right to learn fulfilled.
To learn more about our response to the Syria crisis, click here.