Back to school: new year, same problems – Challenges for Syrian refugee students in Lebanon

By Myriam Fayad

As the situation in Syria has deteriorated, the number of Syrians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, such as Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon have been growing dramatically. By 2018, one million Syrian refugees were registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon. However, the government estimates that at least 1.5 million Syrians live in the country, in addition to 45,000 Palestinians from Syria and more than 250,000 Palestinian refugees who were already in Lebanon. With the world’s largest number of refugees per capita, since 2012 Lebanon has admitted Syrian refugees in public schools by instituting afternoon shifts. This has given Syrian children the chance to continue their education. However, many challenges and barriers still make it difficult for them to catch up.

The “second shift” system

Syrian children in Lebanon are enrolled in the so-called “second shift”, which means they go to school every day from 2 to 6 pm.  Second shifts were introduced by MEHE (Ministry of Education and Higher Education) and UNHCR to accommodate a higher number of Syrian children in Lebanese schools as a part of “Reaching all Children with Education” strategy (also known as RACE 1). This strategy aimed to ensure to vulnerable Lebanese children and Syrian refugees the right to access free, quality, education. However, historically, Lebanon has spent little resources on public education (far below the global and regional averages), which has had a negative impact on the learning opportunities of students coming from the poorest families. Thanks to this program, in the school year 2013/2014, 103,000 non-Lebanese students were enrolled in public schools, against the 27,000 from 2011/2012 and, in the school year 2015/2016, almost 42% of school-aged Syrian children were enrolled in formal public education.

Turkish workers load bags of flour provided by the Turkish Red Crescent onto a truck bound for Syria, at the Turkish Syrian border. | Felton Davis

Challenges for Syrian children in accessing public education

While second shifts have opened the doors to many Syrian refugees, the teaching environment cannot be considered as the most propitious for the learning process, due to often overcrowded classrooms and under-qualified staff. In fact, because of the exponential increase in the need of contractual teachers, weaker entry requirements were set (only a basic degree is required to be hired), which inevitably has had an impact on the learning outcomes of children. Moreover, because teachers are not trained to work with children who have experienced war trauma, they struggle to deal with their students’ difficulties.

In addition to that, Syrian children often report experiencing bullying and corporal punishment in Lebanese schools, making the classroom another harsh and challenging environment they have to cope with. Because of this constant verbal and physical violence, Syrian children are exposed to prolonged stress that affects their mnemonic and cognitive capacities, inevitably weakening their learning opportunities.

Syrian children’s academic attainment is also weakened by other contextual factors such as the Lebanese curriculum where many subjects are taught in either French or English (as opposed to education in Syria which is entirely in Arabic) and irregular attendance to school. Attendance is made difficult by inefficient transportation to school (especially in the countryside) and by the impossibility for certain families to afford monthly bus fees. Moreover, many children are dragged into child labour to contribute to the household income, especially because adults feel more restricted in their movements for fear of being stopped at checkpoints and arrested.

Syrian Refugee at Dana/Jordan, 2013 | MaximillianV

RACE II and the need of quality education

In 2017, the second part of “Reaching all children with Education” strategy was launched by MEHE and UN agents to address the many obstacles that still impede refuge children to enrol in public schools. After the encouraging percentages of enrolment achieved with RACE I, a “Back to school” campaign has been launched in order to enhance the demand for education among children who have been out of school for years and convince potential reluctant parents. Financial barriers are also addressed by the institution of subsidies that will be given to mitigate the cost of education. Moreover, the program aims to improve the quality of teaching by training teachers and education staff to successfully cater to the needs of children having experienced war trauma and forced displacement. Homework support programs are being put in place as well, jointly by MEHE and NGOs, to help children at a drop out risk.

While the future of Syria is still difficult to foresee, an entire generation has been growing up between the unstable tents of the refugee camps. For these children, who have suffered from war trauma and forced displacement, education is the first step to find some stability, far away from child labour, from the hostility of the local communities and the tensions of the refugee camp. Education can be a mean to overcome loss, stress and war related trauma. A productive debate on how education should be gathered to refugee children is necessary, now more than ever, and it will be an important tool for both NGOs and state agents in any humanitarian crisis.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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