TRIPOLI, Lebanon—Kamal, a 20-year-old Syrian living here, is not afraid of failing the exams that could determine where, and if, he might go to university. He has been studying hard and feels well prepared for the exams. But he fears that any certificate granted by the interim Syrian government in exile would be unrecognizable in the country where he is living.
“I do not know what to do if they do not recognize my Thanaweya Amma certificate,” he said, referring to the all-important result of the final examination for secondary school in Syria. “I want to pursue my university education in Lebanon. However, I am not sure I can attain this.”
As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year, the education of many Syrian refugee youth is still up in the air. Many students complain about the difficulty of their host countries’ curriculum, especially those who have been out of school for a long time. In an attempt to support those students, the Syrian Educational Authority was established in 2013 in Lebanon with the goal of securing free education for Syrians by teaching the Syrian curriculum in those areas with many refugees, such as Tripoli and Akkar.
But the authority’s certificates are not recognized in Lebanon, although they are recognized in Turkey. The authority’s efforts are controversial: They help students prepare for university, but many of the students they help may never get to a university if the current political situation holds.
Kamal was unable to get his Thanaweya Amma certificate before he fled from Homs to Lebanon three years ago. Today, he works in a mobile phone store, but he decided to pursue his education and sit for the Thanaweya Amma exams.
“I chose to study the Syrian curricula because I am familiar with it. I know that the certificates granted by the interim Syrian government are unrecognizable except in Turkey, but I am still hoping things might change this year,” Kamal said.
Kamal is not the only case.
Nour, a Syrian student who moved from Hamaa, in Syria, to Lebanon, also prefers to study the Syrian curriculum. “It is the same curriculum which my brothers and sisters had studied before, so they can help me,” she said.
In Lebanon, the number of Syrian student refugees, at all educational levels, is about 100,000, according to the Lebanese education minister, Elias Bou Saab. While a large number of younger Syrian students joined official Lebanese schools and UNRWA free schools, hundreds of students remain unregistered due their need to work and support their families. In other cases, Syrian students were subject to mistreatment and discrimination from both Lebanese teachers and students, media reported.
“The Lebanese official schools received huge numbers of Syrian students who were mixed in with Lebanese students. However, the integration was not successful at all,” said Hamed Saffour, a member of the board of directors and director of the Authority’s media office. According to him, around 70 percent of Syrian students dropped out of education. “The success rates represented only 30 percent. Thus, a need emerged to address these problems,” he said.
One year ago, a study by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said the deterioration witnessed in the educational level of Syrian children was “the worst and speediest deterioration in the history of the region.” The report said the difference in language, dialect, educational curricula, shortage of educational places, poverty, lack of physical safety, and societal tensions in the host countries as the reasons that children were not attending school. In countries hosting Syrian refugees, around 500,000 to 600,000 Syrian children are out of school, the report found.
The Syrian Educational Authority in Lebanon indirectly supervises 10 schools that use the Syrian curricula in different educational stages in different regions. The schools have more than 3,000 students this year.
“We revised the curricula, removed all the signs and pictures related to the regime, and kept the basic educational content,” Saffour said.
The next step was to attract Syrian students. “We depended on specialized Syrian teachers,” he said. “Syrian teachers are better able to communicate with Syrian students who have been exposed to difficult war conditions,” he said.
So far, the Authority says about 60,000 students in different educational levels from kindergarten to secondary schools in different geographical areas in Tripoli, Akkar and Beqaa have benefitted from its services.
There are still many challenges.
The Ministry of Education in Lebanon said any certificate granted by the interim Syrian government would not be valid and that the ministry would close any school that it had not approved.
But so far, schools operating under the supervision of the Authority have been untouched. “The policy of the Lebanese government is clear,” Saffour said. “It does not allow teaching any other curricula except the Lebanese one, but none of our schools have been closed. But this could happen anytime.”
At the same time, the Authority faces financial difficulties. “We receive support from some local associations in Lebanon, in addition to Arab donors and international authorities, but our needs are huge and increasing,” he said.
The Authority pays small salaries for the teachers, so that it can afford to pay for students’ books, stationery, and transportation. “We cannot add any burdens on students, who already live under difficult conditions,” Saffour said.
Jihad, an Arabic teacher in one of the Authority’s schools in North Lebanon, says that the educational services provided by the Authority are still inadequate. “Of course, there are some mistakes concerning management and teaching, and students’ results are not yet up to the standard,” he said.
But, “the Authority’s experience is pioneering because it focused on education at the time when all other organizations were more involved with [the usual] humanitarian relief,” said Safwan Al-Khattib, a Syrian journalist and activist who has lived in Lebanon since 2012.
But the students educated by the Authority can find it difficult to move up the educational ladder. The only university educational opportunity available for Syrians with the Thanaweya Amma certificates granted by the interim Syrian government is provided by the Islamic Reform Society, which includes Tripoli University, since it recognizes these certificates and admits Syrian students in Sharia and Islamic Studies Colleges and gives them with a 50 percent discount.
“Many students dream of traveling to Turkey to pursue their university education, since Thanaweya Amma certificates are acknowledged there. But travel expenses and lack of official documents prevent many from fulfilling this dream,” Saffour said. The students need to have passports and money to get into Turkey, items many don’t have and can’t go back to Syria to get.
Some could say the Syrian Authority is leading students into a dead end. Others view it as providing a possible future. The events of the next year or two may show who is right.