Hayat*, a dark-haired 12-year-old, searches for a familiar face among a circle of children playing a name game. She knows some of the kids. They have fled from the central Syrian city of Homs with their families, just as she has. Others are unknown to her; they are from the Lebanese border region of Wadi Khaled, where she and her family have found refuge.
Hayat is lucky because she is one of the few children able to access a summer school and psychosocial support programme run by the NGO Save the Children, with support from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), in the border regions of Lebanon.
Of the 33,871 refugees registered in the country by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), 51 percent are under the age of 18, and the majority of children face problems accessing education.
“The biggest problem is the language,” says Miled Abou Jaoude, Save the Children’s emergency coordinator in Lebanon. The Syrian school system is entirely run in Arabic, while Lebanese schools teach math and sciences in either English or French, which few Syrian refugees understand.
A recent assessment by UNICEF and Save the Children found that, as a result, many Syrian children are being placed in lower grades than the ones they attended in Syria. Additionally, the curriculum taught in Lebanon is different from that in Syria. Some educational experts, such as Abou Jaoude, say Lebanon’s is more advanced and difficult, making it even harder for the refugee children.
The support programmes from NGOs and UNICEF might help, but UNICEF says that such programmes currently cover only 5,450 children and that it still faces a funding gap of around US$1 million.
All Syrian refugees residing in Lebanon are theoretically able to enter the public school system. According to the UNICEF assessment, the Lebanese schools have the needed extra capacity. But many refugee parents are not aware of this option.
And school access will be delayed for more recent arrivals. The deadline to enrol in schools for the 2012 school year passed in December 2011. Refugee children who arrived after that date have to wait until September this year to attend. With many of children having been displaced several times already inside Syria, some have not gone to school for over a year.
|I did not go to school in Syria. Why should I go here?|
Over 80 percent of the refugees arrived in Lebanon this year. Dana Sleiman, a public relations officer with UNHCR, told IRIN that only 20 percent of the registered children are currently enrolled in school. Many more are not even registered.
Many Syrian children over the age of 11 had dropped out of school before coming to Lebanon. They find it even harder now to re-enter the education system. Instead of going to school, many try to find jobs in agriculture or construction work.
At a UNHCR registration site in Wadi Khaled, Umar*, a 16-year-old from Homs, told IRIN: “I did not go to school in Syria. Why should I go here? I have worked in construction for a few years, and that’s what I would like to do again.”
According to Isabella Castrogiovanni, UNICEF’s chief of child protection programmes, both push and pull factors are responsible. “It’s an income factor for these refugee families, but you also have all these adolescents sitting at home doing nothing and getting bored. They have no chance to go to school or to take any other opportunity.”
And while reports of actual child recruitment are scarce, many male adolescents from Syria over the age of 15 said that people in host communities expect them to go back and fight, the UNICEF assessment said.
Legal and financial barriers
One major hurdle for Syrian children is the distance to the schools. Many of refugee parents, relieved to have made it safely to Lebanon, are afraid to let their children travel longer distances to school. Others would like to enrol their children but cannot afford the extra cost of around 100,000 Lebanese pounds (US$66) per month for transportation.
While Syrians can register their children at schools, taking the final exams in grade 9 and 10 is another problem. The Lebanese Ministry of Education announced that to enrol in exams, Syrian children will have to present proper certification from their schools in Syria proving that they have passed the required tests, but many refugees do not have these papers with them.
The ministry has suggested that refugees could approach the Syrian embassy in Beirut to receive the needed documents, but Dalia Aranki, with the Norwegian Refugee Council, told IRIN that many refugees are unwilling to do so, fearing repercussions from the Syrian regime. Many other refugees have entered the country illegally. While the Ministry of Education has issued a decree that allows enrolment independent of the legal status of the child, some school principals have decided not to implement this decision.
The joint Save the Children-UNICEF assessment also found that many Syrian students experience bullying by Lebanese children and teachers alike, perhaps due to the economic pressure many Lebanese host communities have come under.
In the summer school that Hayat is attending, she is able to learn French or English, which will help her follow along in class when school resumes. The programme, in which a quarter of participants are from the local community, will also help her to get to know some of her future Lebanese peers, aiding the transition back to school.
*not a real name
*This article was amended on 9 August 2012. The original report erroneously stated that children would have to wait until January 2013 to start school.