The turmoil that started in Syria in 2011 pushed a few million Syrians out of their country. More than one million of them have found refuge in Lebanon, a small neighbouring country with limited resources and plenty of its own political, social and economic problems. More than half of refugees are children and about 400,000 are school age.
In addition to the obvious limited access to school due the large number of new potential students, most of the Syrian children who have had the chance to go to school are confronted with a language barrier. The Lebanese curriculum is developed in English or in French, while foreign languages in Syria were not given strong support and students did not get a chance to practice. “In Syria, even English was taught in Arabic,” said Samer, a 12-year-old boy from Raqqa.
A team of researchers of which I was a member conducted a pilot qualitative study in spring 2014 at a non-formal education center in Beirut run by the Syrian non-profit organization, Jusoor. Our objective was to better understand the different risks, assets and processes that influence the achievement of Syrian refugee children in the Lebanese public schools.
Although the study had a very limited scope, it revealed the complexity of the situation and the challenges that young Syrians are confronting. It also showed that Syrian volunteer teachers can make a positive difference.
What are the discovered risks?
The difficulties facing Syrian children in the Lebanese schools are not just due to the language barrier. The study indicates that children can easily cross that barrier with such traditional help as extracurricular language instruction and summer courses.
But there are hidden difficulties not usually taken into account in traditional refugee education. For instance, the study found that Syrian parents from lower socio-economic classes play a decisive role in their children’s schooling. Although most of parents have the will to educate their children, as refugees they don’t always have the means to support them effectively on their hard education journey. They are sometimes forced to make their children work and sometimes they don’t have the right information about schooling opportunities. In addition, children from the lower socio-economic classes seem to react more strongly to violence they have lived through—in Syria or even in their own families. These children are also more sensitive to discrimination at school. These combined risks make those children less resilient to stress and they drop out school more quickly. In such cases, offering language instruction is not enough. An awareness and support program that involves the parents might have more positive impact on keeping such children in school.
This study also reveals that the feelings of discrimination and exclusion from Lebanese peers at school are often the result of apprehension and not necessarily the result of real incidents—except minor ones. This indicates that programs involving both Syrian and Lebanese children could work well and might help Syrian children to adapt at school and give their Lebanese peers good feelings of responsibility and inclusion and could even improve the social cohesion in the hosting communities.
While Lebanese pupils rarely seemed to discriminate against Syrian children, both Syrian adults and children related many cases of mistreatment and discrimination from school staff and teachers. We believe Lebanese educators need special training to deal with the arrival in their schools of massive numbers of Syrian children with special educational and psychological needs.
What are the main assets?
Our study found some sources of strength in Syrian children’s education, chiefly in the support that the Syrian diaspora provides to children in Syrian-run non-formal education centers. Besides education, Syrian volunteers in these centers offer children affection, psycho-social support and even sometimes limited financial support. At present, the Lebanese public education does not have a place for Syrian educators to participate in the education of refugee children, even though Syrian volunteers would be better able to define their educational needs. Programs that encourage the cooperation of Lebanese and Syrian teachers in the education of Syrian children could improve both the schooling experience and the social cohesion.
Although our research was of a very limited scope, it could be the beginning of a better program for the education of Syrian refugee children. At a first glance, the main problems in Lebanon seem to be the language barrier and mistreatment at school but the study revealed that children who have a proper support at home could manage to successfully work in English and could have a strong purpose for going to school and protecting themselves from the negative effects of mistreatment. Children who lack parental support may not understand why they should struggle in school and are vulnerable to dropping out.
These findings are crucial to future educational program design even in other neighbouring countries where there are big Syrian refugee communities. The findings indicate that successful programs should take into account the reality of the social background of the children and should provide support to parents. Programs must explain to parents the importance of education to their children, what to expect from local schools and their role in supporting their children.
In addition, the study revealed the positive role of the Syrian volunteers. When national teachers who know well the curriculum work hand in hand with Syrian teachers who bring new energy and a different social perspective and who know the children’s educational and emotional needs, the children can adapt and evolve well to their new educational setting.
To work, such policies would need strong investment and government support, but if put in place properly they would prevent national teachers from feeling threatened by Syrian competition and give work to displaced Syrian teachers. As a good side effect, this would create a better social cohesion between the refugees and their hosts as unfortunately Syrian refugees may be forced to live in hosting communities more than anyone might wish.
* Oula Abu-Amsha is a Syrian scholar, she has a Ph.D. in computer science. She is interested in the use of educational technologies in higher education and since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, she shifted her interest to education in emergencies.