Syria’s ‘Lost Generation’ of Kids, Caught Between Limited Education and Pressure to Provide

A recent report by Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre maps the educational provisions and status of refugees from Syria aged 12–25 years old, in the main hosting countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes

The Syrian conflict has created the largest number of refugees in recent history.

The violence has kept 2.8 million Syrians out of school and damaged more than 3,400 school facilities, according to Save the Children.

A recent report by Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre mapped the educational provisions and status of refugees from Syria aged 12–25 years old, in the main hosting countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. It looked at both successes and gaps that need to be addressed.

In most cases, demand for education far outweighs supply, “leaving the majority of young refugee children excluded from quality formal and informal education,” the report found. This is particularly true at the secondary level, where most schools in the neighboring countries are under-resourced and underfunded.

In all four contexts, language barriers and curriculum present hurdles to learning in the classroom. Young people have the added stress of trying to simultaneously provide income for their families while they try to better their future through education.

The report’s authors, Dawn Chatty and Sarah Wahby, spoke to Syria Deeply about how to ensure quality education for young Syrian refugees.

Syria Deeply: How has the conflict in Syria impacted access to education for Syrian youth?

Chatty and Wahby: Syrians in government-controlled zones are going to school as normal. Schooling up to high school is functioning and so are universities. That represents a little more than 50% of the population of Syria, but there are about 6 million displaced inside Syria and over 2 million who have left the country.

If they left with resources, many of them are continuing their education and taking advantage of the double shift school programs in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Those who aren’t middle class or don’t have savings are withdrawing their children from school. Adolescents are expected to work and bring in an income to support their family.

The U.N. system is pretty good at providing primary education for those people who are willing to register. However, once children are finished with primary school, there are not many options for adolescents. If they aren’t registered in a camp where schooling is provided for free, it makes it very difficult for them to continue their education.

The statistics that were commonly accepted regarding literacy rates in Syria appear to have been largely exaggerated. A large number of refugees in Jordan, particularly youth from the rural countryside, had not completed their education or might have finished only two years of it before they fled. When they arrived in Jordan a few years later, many of them had forgotten how to read and write. They had been out of education as long as they had been in it.

The U.N. system for primary school cannot cope with older children who are illiterate, so these children become the “lost generation.”

Syria Deeply: What are the main obstacles facing host countries in providing education for Syrian refugees?

Chatty and Wahby: There are infrastructural problems like not having enough school buildings. There is also a lack of flexibility in ministries of education, where they need to put more effort into recognizing former qualifications and accreditation of Syrian teachers in neighboring countries. There are many instances where young people don’t have their certificates – they were either destroyed or left behind – so they are unable to re-enter formal education at the same level as their peers. Young people want to stay with their peers, so many of them don’t want to go back a level or two at school.

The problem isn’t only that they don’t have documentation. Host countries should be able to contact the Ministry of Education in Syria to figure out what levels of schooling the students have finished, but most of those who have fled from Syria don’t want the government to know they have fled. Most of the countries neighboring Syria are not in working relations with Syria and won’t consider contacting the Ministry of Education.

At this point there isn’t an agency that is taking on accreditation at a national level. It shouldn’t be difficult to test the knowledge of the students based on the curriculum they have been following.

Curriculum and language barriers are also a big issue. Syrians still want the Syrian curriculum that is affiliated to their country and history. The Turkish government is allowing Syrians to open schools, allowing Syrian teachers to teach or co-teach with Turkish teachers, and allowing them to teach the Syrian curriculum of the Syrian Transitional Government [a Syrian curriculum removed of Baath Party history].

In Lebanon, Lebanese teachers conduct most of the teaching. The Lebanese curriculum in Arabic is quite different than the Syrian – it requires greater fluency in English and French.

Syria Deeply: What are the main obstacles to learning in the classroom? How have language barriers and the experience of conflict shaped the attitudes of the students?

Chatty and Wahby: Students are in home situations that are very difficult. They are in crowded spaces with many people without options to study. There is a sense of trauma, depression and many of them have seen awful things that lead to problems with concentration.

But it is very important to note that a lot of students still have a sense of worth and agency, and that is expressed in their desire to work. Young people who have been out of school for two years feel very uncomfortable returning to education.

Many of them have seen violence or a family member die, so they feel they are now responsible for the family. There is a conflict between them feeling that they have to be adults and recognizing that they need to further their education so they can have a profession or skill that will keep their families alive in the future.

There is not enough support for programmes that allow adolescent children to work for a couple of hours a day and also carry on with their education.

Teachers also need support and experience to be able to handle the volume of students, and the psychosocial issues of displacement that many of these children face. You can get people in the classroom, but are they able to engage with the material? An emphasis on teacher training, classroom management and psychosocial counselling are key.

Syria Deeply: What can be done, in terms of educational interventions, to improve the status quo? Are there any promising solutions?

Chatty and Wahby: We hope that small projects that are successful can be scaled up. The education system needs international funding, you can’t expect these host countries to do it on their own.

This would involve building the infrastructure and possibly negotiating a curriculum in each country that students want to and can follow. Most importantly, there needs to be a flexible training program so that students can be in education but also develop their job prospects or keep their jobs.

We need to look at adolescents as young adults, give them the opportunity to get educated but also the opportunity to take on work or apprentice in vocational activities. It would contribute not only to their well-being but also to their entire family’s well-being.

There are ways to give technical vocational training to the students that link back to the needs of the host community job market. Young people are working at low-skilled jobs that are creating a sense of despair at the prospect for their future. The linkage to economic means to earn money and better job prospects is important.

We are worried that we will end up with a generation with sub-standard education or no education whatsoever. That “lost generation” will then be the one that goes back to Syria.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of AP Images

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