27 Oct 2014
Youmna stopped going to her school in Aleppo two years ago, when it was bombed. “I miss my friends and the other students,” she said. Now the 12-year-old, her scarf and pink clothes covering her thin frame, is attending an informal tent school near her settlement, on the outskirts of Saadnayel. Her elder brother, 13, cannot because he works at a carpentry workshop during the day. Youmna is among a third of a million Syrian children in Lebanon who don’t have access to school. Lebanon’s public schools are woefully overcrowded and can barely cater to a fraction of Syria’s children who fled the war at home. The educational crisis has prompted aid workers and teachers to warn of a lost generation of Syrian schoolchildren who have had no access to schools for up to three years, with many suffering from psychological and learning disorders linked to the trauma they endured in Syria. “If you see a destroyed building you rebuild it, but if you see a generation of children destroyed, what are you going to do?” said Maria Assi, the executive director of Beyond Association, a Lebanese NGO that is operating informal tent schools for 17,000 Syrian children in the Bekaa Valley funded by UNICEF. A recent report by Save The Children estimated that four out of five Syrian children in Lebanon are out of school. Roughly half of the 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under the age of 17. About one out of five individuals in Lebanon is a Syrian. The country now has over 1.2 million registered refugees, bringing Lebanon’s population close to the projected figures for 2050. Lebanon’s public school system only has the capacity to cater to about 300,000 children. Syrian kids who did not gain entry into Lebanese public schools have few options. While some public schools have also opened afternoon classes for Syrian children, Education Minister Elias Bou Saab, in an internal memo circulated in October to public schools and obtained by The Daily Star, told school administrators to only register returning Syrian students or their siblings. This means Syrians who are starting school in Lebanon this year cannot join the country’s public schools. Syrians whose families did not live in Lebanon before the war also cannot enter public kindergartens here. In addition to the informal UNICEF-funded schools, some local communities have opened small-scale institutions that teach children in the surrounding villages, but those who work there often do so on a volunteer basis and risk closure if they do not find volunteers. Some Syrian men and women, who cannot work as refugees, will also gather between five and 10 Syrian children in their own tents or homes for classes to fill the time. But those who work with the children face challenges beyond what teachers in regular schools endure. Many work on a volunteer basis, and so cannot provide for their own families through the schoolwork alone. “We are trying to get support because in the end these teachers have families and costs, but we cannot leave the tragedy like this,” said Mohammad Dinnawi, the principal of Al-Ghad al-Mushreq, a small volunteer school in the village of Tikrit in Akkar, illustrating the emotional and practical struggle faced by educators. “You’re destroying a generation,” Dinnawi added.The sign on the school Dinnawi runs, which houses 250 children, says that it caters to the “children of our Syrian brothers.” The families pay no fees and the school, which was opened by a local NGO, covers their transportation costs. But it will likely close in the absence of funds. All the teachers are Syrian, and unpaid. They say they are motivated by the sight of so many of their children without access to education. Recently, 40 students missed class because they had run out of clean clothes. “Whether there is a funder or not, there’s a tragedy that we can feel,” Dinnawi said.In addition to the absence of funds, kids will often skip school past a certain age because of how pervasive child labor is among the community, particularly around farm harvest seasons.Some of the children who do go to school suffer from psychological distress brought on by trauma that they experienced during the war in Syria. Teachers also have to work with students who, in the end, are refugees living in tents who may not have had a proper night’s sleep or where school is simply not a priority. Moreover, since some may have not had access to schools for the last three years, they have less discipline and require intensive sessions outside the classroom to catch up with their peers. The latter problem also extends to children who have gone to Lebanese public schools. Some have dropped out because they could not cope with Brevet classes in French or needed more time to reach the level of their age group. And some have been the subject of mockery for simply being different and less privileged. Still, aid workers and teachers speak in something akin to admiration and awe at the children who do manage to find some schooling – an eagerness to learn and to have structure to their lives. “It is important for us not to have an illiterate generation of Syrians because after three years, you are sentencing a generation to illiteracy,” said Assi, Beyond’s director. In the Bekaa Valley, Assi and her colleagues have helped set up several tent schools in close proximity to the refugee tent settlements that dot the area. The “classrooms” are held in small tents, because it is illegal to build permanent structures for refugees, and as a result they cannot use concrete. Teachers work with dozens of students who look mostly happy to be there. The classes range from English, Arabic, mathematics, science, geography and even heritage taught in the form of songs. There are also protection classes to teach refugee children how to avoid exploitation.“We’re trying to break the routine in education,” said Wissam Alloush, a Syrian teacher who was a mechanical engineer back home and now teaches the children math. Alloush said the greatest difficulty was the fact that roughly half the students needed some psychological intervention – he described the case of one student, a 12-year-old, who apparently developed diabetes after being traumatized in the course of witnessing heavy combat in her home province of Idlib.Alloush, who has recordings on his laptop of the children acting in a play that featured soliloquys about childhood, innocence and child labor, said he was trying to use art therapy and theater sketches to draw in the children. Teachers in Beyond’s schools are a mix of Syrians and Lebanese. The organization hires Lebanese in order to reduce unemployment in local communities and to increase the interaction with Syrians. “We don’t want there to be simply Syrian cantons,” Assi said.“The Lebanese teacher has a major role in sending a message to the Syrian children, that we are protecting them from fear and from everything they lived through in Syria,” said Lina Hasan, a Lebanese teacher who teaches Arabic to Syrian children. Assi said the informal schools help local communities because it keeps children off the street and also helps refugees avoid all forms of exploitation. But the challenges range from whether the family decides to prioritize school, to health difficulties.“The cooperation of the family is important, and whether education or bread is a priority,” Assi said. “Should the boy work for LL4,000 or LL6,000 or go to school?” In addition, the trauma of the war in Syria has left many children with learning disabilities, fear of authority figures and mental disorders. And the crowded environment makes it easy for infections to spread.