It’s hard enough for a preteen to start off the school year on the right foot with new peers, new classes, and new teachers. But try studying in a new school across an international border, away from the home village you fled. This is what thousands of Syrian children are struggling through in Jordan, where their numbers are only increasing..
The Jordanian government says a quarter of a million refugees have crossed into the country since the Syrian conflict began. Nearly 145,000 have registered with, or are awaiting appointments with, the United Nations’ refugee agency, and the vast majority live outside Jordan’s sole camp for Syrians. They are severely straining the kingdom’s already overstretched government budget, at a time when the monarchy has sought to quell some of the most significant popular protests in its history.
As I reported for Al-Monitor last week, the Jordanian school system has felt the crush particularly intensely. More than 21,000 Syrian students have enrolled in Jordanian schools this semester, and around 30,000 are expected for the spring semester, according to Feda Gharaibeh, the director of the humanitarian relief coordination unit at Jordan’s Ministry of Planning and International Cooperation. At least 3,400 have also signed up for the classes at the school at the Zaatari refugee camp.
Even before the influx of Syrian refugees, Jordanian schools were grappling with packed classes and funding shortfalls. “The Jordanian education system [was] already creaking. If it was an old car, it would be a very old car,” said Curt Rhodes, the international director of Questscope, a non-profit organization that has partnered with the Jordanian government for over two decades on strengthening public education.
With financial help from UNICEF, the Jordanian Ministry of Education has provided free tuition and textbooks to Syrian children, while scrambling to find space in classrooms for the thousands who have moved into Jordan’s northern cities and the capital, Amman.
The government has started double-shifting schools in areas like the northern city of Irbid, just 10 miles from the Syrian border, where refugees are concentrated. At Irbid’s Qadasiya school for girls, Jordanians attend in the mornings, Syrians in the afternoons. Class sizes across the north can reach upwards of 50 or 60 students, particularly in Mafraq and Ramtha, two cities along the border.
But for many Syrians who do not live near the centrally located double-shifted schools, and who cannot afford transportation, local principals decide whether they can or want to accept them. Some schools are welcoming, but others cannot accept more pupils due to limited space.
Two weeks ago, I traveled with a Ministry of Education official and representatives from Save the Children-Jordan, which helps Syrians register with Jordanian public schools. We drove to Boshra, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Irbid, where I met Jaafar Lu’ay Mara’ee, a 12 year-old from the southern Syrian city of Deraa. He attends sixth-grade classes at a boys’ school that has 15 Syrians among its 480 students.
“It was easier there [in Syria], because I was used to the system there,” he said, echoing his classmates and many Syrian parents. “Here, everything’s new.”
Still, teachers, principals, and aid workers said Syrians’ concerns about a “different” Jordanian curriculum are largely unfounded; even though the Jordanian system stresses English more and has an additional year of study, it largely mirrors Syria’s curriculum.
But Syrian kids confront educators with other challenges. Some children have trouble concentrating in class and studying at home, where they often share squalid living conditions with their own family and others. Many remain psychologically scarred by the fighting and flight from their villages. However, the school system is not equipped to handle their needs.
“Every day, [just] coming here and teaching them – that’s the biggest challenge,” said Mona AlMoqdad, 23, a Syrian who teaches English at the school in Zaatari camp. “They talk to you about returning to Syria.”
Some schools are making an effort to adjust to the new additions’ learning needs. Teachers at the Qadasiya school in Irbid speak in the Syrian dialect of Arabic. At a girls school in Boshra, educators give special examinations to account for any differences in Syrians’ educational background.
“When a teacher has students that studied with the Jordanian curriculum for so many years, he has to find a way to merge his way of teaching for both [them and the Syrians]” said Ali Jaradarat, the principal of the Boshra boys school.
But some students fall through the cracks. No reliable estimates exist for the number of students who have enrolled in Jordanian schools but have since stopped attending. They leave for a variety of reasons, from the unfamiliar learning environment to their parents’ aversion to long-term planning, to dealing with other priorities, like finding food and shelter.
To reach those kids, UNICEF and Questscope are designing informal and non-formal educational programs to supplement the regular curriculum. Non-formal education provides a nontraditional, accelerated learning experience for children who have not attended school for an extended period, or for refugee children who have yet to enroll in school. The aim is to put them on track toward a general education equivalence of a 10th-grade diploma. Informal programming acts like a halfway house for students, building their critical thinking facilities and literary skills. But the lack of a full accounting of the students who actually need these programs has challenged aid organizations.
For now, teachers, schools administrators, and aid workers are focusing primarily on the gargantuan task of managing the sheer number of Syrian children who keep flowing across the border to the Hashemite Kingdom, night by night.