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As the School Year Starts, Many Refugees are Shut Out

Shelling grew so intense in Duha Abdullah’s town near the Syrian capital of Damascus that she fled to Jordan with her mother and five siblings.

“Joining university is the only chance I and my whole family have for a better life,” says Abdullah, 18, who still dreams of studying architecture even though it’s been two years since she left Syria. “But I’m not able to pay university fees.”

With violence expanding across much of the region, the number of refugees and “internally displaced persons” is swelling this year, possibly in a way that it never has before. The problem extends far beyond those who have been displaced by Syria’s war. The region is torn apart by conflicts that arc from Libya to South Sudan and northward through Iraq. Along with the more-publicized humanitarian crisis has come a little-noticed educational disaster.

“The ongoing Syria conflict is shattering the aspirations of millions of young Syrians, robbing them of the opportunity to build a future for themselves and their war-torn country,” Roland Schilling, UNHCR representative to the United Kingdom, said in a statement. “Ensuring that these young people have access to quality education while they are refugees is essential in addressing this urgent challenge.”

The refugee crisis is threatening to sideline a generation. “They used to tell us that when a door closes, a window opens,” Abdullah says, “but nothing has opened for refugees like us.”

  • • In Lebanon, with 1.1 million registered refugees, limited government financing, language barriers and the need for some children to earn money are depriving many refugees of education. A government edict issued this fall blocks Syrian children from Lebanese schools.
  • • In Jordan, 600,000 Syrian refugees and many more Iraqis are straining the country’s economy, water resources and health care. At least 150,000 Syrian children are eligible for education in public schools despite overcrowding. Very few refugee youth have the money to attend universities.
  • • In Iraq, an estimated 1.8 million people have been displaced since January and the country also has 215,000 Syrian refugees.  Across Iraq, refugees live in more than 2,000 schools, the U.N. refugee agency says, delaying the start of the school year.
  • • In the Gaza Strip, the official Palestinian news agency says six universities have been damaged, along with 141 government and 97 UNRWA schools.
  • • In Libya’s eastern region, fighting between rival militia groups is expected to prevent more than 60,000 students from attending their first day of school.
  • • In South Sudan, most of the more than half a million children who fled their homes since civil conflict started there last year have stopped going to school.

‘So they don’t get left behind’

More than 3-million Syrian refugees have fled a three-year-old civil conflict at home that has reversed more than a decade of progress in children’s education, Unicef says. As of late last year, 2.2 million Syrian children inside the country—and more than half a million of those outside—were not in school, according to the organization.

In Lebanon, which is hosting more Syrian refugees than any other country in the region, more than 317,000 children between the ages of three and 18 do not have access to education, says Jeffrey Dow, the Lebanon education coordinator for the International Rescue Committee, citing UNHCR figures. That number includes Palestinians and poor Lebanese. “This is an enormous problem,” Dow says. “I would really stress the urgency and response that is needed in giving these kids high-quality education so they don’t get left behind.”

The main obstacle children have faced is lack of Lebanese government capacity to deal with the Syrian influx, he says. Some children, used to learning in Arabic, struggle to learn in French—the language used to teach math and science in Lebanese schools.

A decree issued this month may block non-Lebanese students from registering in the public schools, and the education minister has said the ministry is talking to Unrwa about establishing Syrian-only schools.

Keith David Watenpaugh, a professor and director of the University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative, says many Lebanese are openly hostile toward Syrians, which has made it hard for the students and scholars, in particular. “Lebanon’s fragile political system, a weak economy and sectarianism have created a very difficult environment for the refugee students,” he says.

‘Friends who will not call me chocolate’

In Jordan, a patchwork of programs that are not always coordinated try to educate young people in the camps housing thousands of Syrian refugees. But interviews with refugees and the organizations themselves make it clear they are only meeting a fraction of the need. Syrians who live outside the camps can enroll in public schools, but often face bureaucratic obstacles.

“My 14 year-old daughter is sitting in our home while students of her generation go to school,” says Samira Mohamed, a Syrian whose daughter can’t enroll until she has residency papers. “She feels left behind.”

In 2013, no more than 55 percent of school-age Syrian children in Jordan were enrolled in schools, according to Unicef figures. The Jordanian government opened an additional 79 double-shift schools to respond to increased demand, straining the energy and availability of teachers and overcrowding classrooms.

Somali refugee children (Unicef).

Higher education at Jordanian universities, meanwhile, is out of financial reach for all but a small number of Syrian refugees, according to a report by the Institute of International Education and the University of California, Davis. Other hurdles exist. A Syrian refugee in Amman, Said Osama, says he can’t complete his degree without records of the courses he passed when he studied three years ago in Syria. “I arrived here on foot after walking for two days and without any documents,” Osama says. “I hope to have a resettlement opportunity to get rid of this nightmare.”

Although Syrians in Jordan are often in the spotlight, they are just one of 45 nationalities registered as refugees. There are also Palestinians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Eritreans and about 500 Somali refugees, according to the U.N. refugee agency.

One of the Somalis is Idris, 19, who dropped out of a Jordanian school after making few friends and struggling to learn Arabic. Now he attends courses offered by a non-governmental group that teach him English. The language, he says, “could be my only passport to the western world where I could study and work and find friends who will not call me chocolate.”

‘My dream is to go back to Iraq’

Schooling in Jordan isn’t as hard for Iraqi refugees, who first flooded to the country in the early 1990s when the Gulf war pushed a wave of mostly middle-class Iraqis to the kingdom. The second wave was after the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq. Since June, when the Islamic State swept through the North of Iraq, closing 8 universities and capturing the country’s second largest city, even more Iraqis have fled to Jordan, where they have access to free health care and education under a ten-year-old law.

Yet when it comes to university education, Iraqis are considered international students and required to pay double the fees of locals—and in dollars. “We are not welcome here,” says Rana, an Iraqi, 21, who only gave her first name. “They think we are the reason behind high prices and lack of employment.”

“My dream is to go back to Iraq,” she adds.

But there, the situation is dire. In Iraqi Kurdistan, which has remained mostly peaceful despite violence nearby, 550 schools in Dohuk are providing shelter for 21,000 families who have been internally displaced by the surge of the militant group Islamic State, according to local media.

Not all refugees in the region have trouble accessing education.

In Egypt, where Syrian and Sudanese refugee students have access to public schools, Unhcr statistics show that a high percentage of them are enrolled in public and private schools.

In Turkey, Iraqi refugees described school enrollment as simple, although Iraqi children  struggle with learning in Turkish.  But Hamza Ammar, 23, says most refugees he knows aren’t taking university classes because they need to make money to survive.

Life in limbo

In South Sudan, most of the more than half a million children who left their homes since conflict erupted there last year have stopped attending school, according to a June report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Those residing in camps for the internally displaced have no access at all to secondary or higher education, says David Lemeriga, of the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Outside camps, classes are crammed, children suffer from trauma and there is a dearth of teaching staff. “If education is not reprioritized immediately there is an ample chance of a generation of children missing out on education,” says Gyan Adhikari, Plan International’s South Sudan Country Director.

A Syrian refugee boy stands behind a fence in Turkey (Freedom House).

In Libya, the school year is grinding into gear despite violence. In Benghazi, 13 schools have been exposed to indiscriminate shelling, 100 are in “unsafe zones,” while nine have been used to house internally displaced families, according to a report by the Benghazi Education Office, a government body. In total, 63,000 students will be unable to attend schools by September 28—the delayed start of the school year in the city, the report says. In other areas, some teachers are struggling to get to schools and universities that have already opened, due to fighting.

“All schools in our area are closed due to continuous shelling,” says Jamilia Almagtoof, a teacher who works at a school in Zawia, a district near the capital Tripoli. “No one is safe here. We all could die… We don’t know when the war will be over.”

In the Gaza Strip, a summer of fighting with Israel has ended, but the trauma is still there. “My life is in limbo,” says Faima Tamboura, a student at Gaza’s Al Azhar University whose home was hit by Israeli missiles, killing her sister. “I cannot concentrate,” she says.

Reda Fhelboom, Yousef Alhelou, Mohammad Awad, and Gilgamesh Nabeel also contributed to this report.


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