Iraqi refugee children in Syria are struggling to keep up at school, or are dropping out to seek paid work, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“Education is absolutely central to the future of all children. Having a generation not equipped to participate in the economy of their country serves no one,” said Sherazade Boualia, UNICEF head in Syria.
Syria, which took in up to 1.2 million of the two million refugees who fled sectarian violence in the wake of the 2003 war in Iraq, opened its public education system to the refugees, but many are unable to benefit.
Children often work to bring in extra income for their families. Iraqis are not legally allowed to work in Syria and black market jobs often pay just 100 SYP (US$2) per day, according to the refugees.
Hussein Ali, 16, said he had to drop out of school to earn money cleaning in a hotel. “We are very grateful for the cash assistance from the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency],” said Mr Ali, his father, who has a disability which prevents him from working. “But it is not enough.”
Others have to travel too far to get to a school with available places, or cannot afford the nominal fees. “Most of the Iraqi refugee population is concentrated in and around Damascus where schools' capacity is already stretched,” said Boualia.
The refugees’ plight is getting worse as remittances are drying up and savings running out, said US NGO Refugees International.
Over the last three years the number of Iraqi refugee children dropping out of school has risen steadily, according to UNICEF.
Government figures indicate that 49,132 Iraqi refugees were enrolled in the 2007-2008 school year, but this dropped to 32,425 in 2008-2009. Refugees International said the number had dropped further this year, with 30 percent fewer children enrolled.
"The decline is linked to families experiencing more financial stress as well as resettlement to third countries and returns to Iraq," said Boualia.
Anecdotal evidence suggests most of those dropping out are male, with families keeping girls in school.
Teachers say Iraqi children are falling behind at school due to emotional problems, gaps in their education, or difficulties adjusting to their new situation in Syria.
In coordination with the Syrian government, UNICEF is attempting to tackle the problem with a US$6 million project, which includes improving facilities at schools with a high proportion of refugees, remedial classes for children who have fallen behind, and vocational evening classes for those working.
UNICEF is also training teachers in the psycho-social needs of Iraqis which may be preventing them from concentrating. “The majority of Iraqis have at least one family member that suffers from extreme depression," said Elizabeth Campbell, senior official at Refugees International. Many of those are children. UNHCR says 150 Iraqis are referred for counselling every month.
Refugee registration data shows most Iraqi refugee adults living in Syria are educated and value education for their children. But experts say solutions must be found or children will continue to drop out of school.
“The needs of the whole family must be met to ensure children attend school,” said Campbell.
Experts say providing families with financial assistance contingent upon their children enrolling in school, or providing hot meals at schools, might be one way forward.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions