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What Syrian Refugee Students in Lebanon Wish Their Teachers Knew

/ 16 Jan 2022

What Syrian Refugee Students in Lebanon Wish Their Teachers Knew

Between what is desired and what is actual for Syrian refugee students in Lebanon lies a gap that stems from harsh economic and legal conditions and results in big numbers of school dropouts. A recent study issued by the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Reach initiative sheds light on this issue.

The study suggests that teachers can play a big role in narrowing the gap between the educational opportunities refugee students dream of and those available to them.

The study, titled “We See You: What Syrian Refugee Students Wish Their Teachers Knew,” aims to develop practical steps for policy makers, educators, and researchers, based on refugee youths’ ideas and experiences.

The study is based on eight months of observations in three Lebanese schools, and more than 100 hours of interviews with ninth-grade Syrian students, their teachers and families, in the 2018-2019 academic year.

“Most what we hear about refugee education is how schools and teachers have failed refugee students, However, when we listen to students, we also learn about their experiences at school that helped them start building the future they imagine and hope for.”

Sarah Dryden-Peterson   Director of the Reach initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Students say it is difficult, but not impossible for teachers to help them, according to the study. This can be achieved through developing pedagogies of predictability, explaining, fairness, and care, it says.

“Most what we hear about refugee education is how schools and teachers have failed refugee students,” said Sarah Dryden-Peterson, an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Reach’s director. “However, when we listen to students, we also learn about their experiences at school that helped them start building the future they imagine and hope for.”

Large Refugee Population

With nearly one million registered refugees and another 500,000 unregistered ones, Lebanon is host to the second highest number of Syrian refugees in the world.

UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency, estimates that in the 2019-2020 school year, 33 percent of Syrian refugee children of primary school age dropped out of school.

Lisa Abou Khaled, a spokeswoman for UNHCR, said that 321,512 Syrian students were registered with the refugee agency in 2020-2021. About half (51.8%) of school-age Syrian refugees were enrolled in Lebanese schools, she said.

Lebanon has been attempting to educate refugee children by running double shifts at schools, with Syrians going to school in the afternoon and Lebanese in the morning.

In August, the Lebanese Ministry of Education launched a five-year plan for public education. It laid the foundations for “accommodating an additional number of students moving from private schools to public ones, and ensuring flexible education for all,” Abou Khaled said.

Insights from Students

According to the Harvard study, refugee students describe themselves as “being behind” because they attend school only in the afternoon shift, and for a shorter amount of time compared to their Lebanese counterparts. They also struggle to catch up on years of lost schooling and in their quest to learn English.

Mahasin Mdallaleh, a psychologist at a Lebanese school, says refugee students need gentle treatment due to what they went through during the conflict phase. (Photo: Muzna Al-Zohari)
Mahasin Mdallaleh, a psychologist at a Lebanese school, says refugee students need gentle treatment due to what they went through during the conflict phase. (Photo: Muzna Al-Zohari)

Students have set short-term and long-term goals, such as: passing the ninth-grade exams, attending university, pursuing their career goals, building relationships, and contributing to their communities in Lebanon and Syria. But many find that they are unable to achieve their goals.

Vidur Chopra, a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University and a co-author of the study, said many obstacles can block Syrian refugee students from achieving their educational goals. These include “the severe restrictions on refugees’ legal and economic rights to work, limited relations with their Lebanese teachers in the evening shift, learning difficulties in a new language (English), and a general lack of affiliation and communication in Lebanon.”

He added that students do not find their experiences and identities as displaced Syrians reflected in the school curricula, which makes it harder for them to integrate and adapt.

“Refugee students need to be treated with kindness, given what they went through in the conflict. They also need teachers who can understand them and can deal with their requirements.”

Mahasin Mdallaleh   A psychologist at a Lebanese school

In turn, Dryden-Peterson says: “In this research, we find out that through these relationships, educators can support students to overcome the exclusions they face while living as refugees, and to make what they learn relevant to their own experiences.”

The study calls for providing more training for educators on learning systems based on pedagogies of predictability and explanation. It also stresses the need to support refugees’ access to vocational programs.

Recognizing Refugees’ Needs

For her part, Mahasin Mdallaleh, a psychologist at a Lebanese school, says refugee students need to be treated with kindness, given what they went through in the conflict. They also need teachers who can understand them and can deal with their requirements.

“It is necessary to appoint Syrian teachers who can communicate with students and build good relations with them,” she added.

Mdallaleh talks about the challenges faced by Syrian students. “There is a lack of teachers, given the low wages teachers receive in the evening shift, which amounts to about $90 per month, if they ever get it,” she said. She called for more financial incentives for teachers, along with the necessary training and resources.

Those suggestions are consistent with the study’s recommendations, including the need to increase teaching hours, offer remedial education during or after regular school hours, provide language support, and make sure all students have equal access to resources and support.

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The study urges teachers to do more to get to know students as individuals by listening to their thoughts and fears, making them feel welcome, and addressing their needs. This may include translating materials to ease language barriers, simplifying some educational content, and recognizing that refugees enjoy the same rights to education as other students.

The challenge facing researchers, policy makers and educators, says Dryden-Peterson, is to create the conditions that enable all teachers to have the resources, time, and opportunities to learn how to create these kinds of relationships and to provide education to refugee students.

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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام