Victor Argo, with special contributions from Sasha J. Mattar in Lebanon
Last updated: 5 March, 2015

Syrian children and the battle for education

Arab donors doing too little, harassment at school, and a striking degree of dropouts. We spoke to young Syrians to understand what they're going through and how the world should respond.

“Do you see yourself as a refugee?“ I ask Maria. 

“People should first of all learn what being a refugee means; it is people who don’t have money and it is the government who pays for all their expenses. I am for sure not one of them: I live in a duplex apartment, I attend an expensive school and I live a normal life using my own money and not the government’s. So I don’t know the answer to your question since I am not a refugee. Thank God.“ 

Maria is 16, she is from Aleppo in Syria. In 2012, Maria moved to Lebanon together with her family, to escape the war in her homeland. She now lives in Keserwan, a Christian district north of Beirut.

Her brother George, 17, shares Maria’s views: “here in this area, we are not refugees,” he says, “since we pay for everything and we own the house and the cars…unlike the Bekaa where refugees fully depend on the government: for money, food and shelter.”

“People should first of all learn what being a refugee means…”

Maria and George may see it differently but they are two out of approximately 1.1 million Syrian refugees currently living in Lebanon, according to figures given by the UNHCR, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. About half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are below the age of 18, with roughly 470,000 being school-aged child refugees. All of them, with a few exceptions, are struggling to get a good education under difficult circumstances.

Before the war, the Syrian school system was on par with countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. According to UNESCO statistics, 91% of all Syrian children were enrolled in schools, a number which put Syria slightly above the average figure for Arab countries. Today, the enrollment rate of Syria’s 4.8 million children of school age, whether living in Syria or within neighboring countries, has dropped dramatically and stands at 38%. This is even way below the percentage of one of the world’s most underdeveloped regions, Sub-Saharan Africa.

“Schools, and the journeys to them,” writes Save the Children, a British NGO, “are on the frontline of the crisis, putting the lives of children and teachers in constant dangers. More than 18% of Syrian schools have been damaged, destroyed, used for military purposes or occupied by displaced people.”

“Education was widely accessible in Syria before 2011,” says Wardeh, a young woman in her early twenties who lives near Damascus. “The only thing that bothered me was that school focused on learning things by heart. It didn’t matter if you understood the lesson or not as long as you memorized what was written in the books.”

Wardeh is a Palestinian refugee in Syria and this puts her in a special spot. She didn’t attend a regular Syrian school but went to a school for Palestinian refugees instead, run by UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (for Palestinian refugees in the Near East).

“UNRWA schools are much better than Syrian schools,” Wardeh explains. “I went to the UNRWA school from grade one to nine. After that I continued studying in a regular Syrian school. I always felt that there was a huge gap between the two types of school.”

Inside or near Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon there are UNRWA schools too. Camps like al-Badawi in Tripoli for instance, where Samaa is living. A densely populated camp already, al-Badawi is now over flooded with Palestinian refugees having fled the war in Syria.

“Around 40% of the Palestinian (Syrian) refugees go to the UNRWA school,” says Samaa. “However the majority of the children doesn’t attend school because the school is in a very bad condition. For example there is no heating system during wintertime, or anything else to keep the students warm.”

“The education provided at the school isn’t very good either,” Samaa continues. “The only reason why some children keep going to school is to learn how to read and write. They don’t want to become illiterate.”


In Syria the situation in UNRWA schools has gotten worse as well. Because of the fights, Palestinian refugees were forced to change schools and ended up in classrooms crammed with over 70 students. For the school year of 2014-2015, Wardeh says, UNRWA has rented school space from the Syrian government. The Palestinian students go there for the afternoon shift, after the Syrian students have finished their morning classes. Lessons have become very short – only 30 minutes for each lesson, instead of the usual 45 minutes.

“And sometimes,” Wardeh tells me, “students are left with no classes at all, because teachers leave their job or take long holidays without being replaced.” The situation in times of war is difficult for everybody.

In Lebanon, the dropout rate for Syrian students in public schools is 70%, according to a report by MERIP, the Middle East Research and Information Project. The reasons for this are many. Some complain that Syrian children are humiliated and beaten in school. Some parents just don’t have the money to get their children into school. They may have to choose between rent, food and a child’s proper enrollment.

A particular problem for Syrian students in Lebanon is the language. While in Syria all classes are taught in Arabic, many lessons in Lebanon are given in French or English only. A lot of students have difficulties to follow the classes because they lack the necessary language skills. This is not only a challenge for students in Tripoli’s al-Badawi camp, but also true for “privileged refugees” in Keserwan. “When I came to Lebanon, I had difficulties to adjust with school since I used to take everything in Arabic and here it’s mainly English,” says George.

“Some students who cannot cope with the Lebanese system,” Samaa says, “study the Syrian method at home, on their own, hoping that they will be able to take the final exams in Syria.” But most of the Palestinian Syrians don’t have valid visas for Lebanon, so they risk being fined and expelled when applying for one, or not being able to return to Lebanon when they go to Syria for the exams.

Syrian refugees stretch the possibilities of Lebanon, of the Lebanese social and political system, to its limits. “We have enough, there’s no capacity anymore to host more displaced”, Lebanon’s Interior Minister Nohad Machnouk said at a news conference in January of 2015. “This situation cannot continue.”

“UNRWA schools are much better than Syrian schools,” Wardeh explains.

Refugee parents in Lebanon now refer to their children with the terms “burned generation” or “lost generation”. Leading international humanitarian organizations such as UNICEF have therefore started the “No Lost Generation” initiative. The goal is to expand access for Syrian refugee children to learning and psychological support and to restore hope for the future.

The government of Lebanon has adopted its own strategy to get all refugee children into education: Reaching All Children with Education (RACE). Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, both initiatives are plagued by a funding gap. Whereas Lebanon’s public education system has borne the brunt to adjust to the refugee inflow, the modest involvement to date of Arab donors is particularly striking. “No Lost Generation” required $885 million for 2014 of which only $300 million has been received. 92% of Syrian children in Lebanon age 15-18 remain out of school.

The failures to address the education crisis among Syrian refugees will have far reaching consequences. ODI, the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank, fears the worst. “Robbed of opportunities to continue their schooling,” ODI writes, “young Syrians will be forced to the margins of society. The danger is that vulnerable adolescents and young adults will be drawn into extremist political groups.”

“One thing that makes me feel very sad,” says Wardeh, “is that Syrian kids have lost all their chances to get a good education. Instead of the society working on how to make education better, the children ended up without it!”

And Wardeh wonders: “what will this generation bring to the world 20 years from now? If only we could wake up to a new day without this mess!”

Stranded in Lebanon, George reflects on the good times he had in Aleppo. “I always feel homesick,” he says, “homesick for my friends, for the rest of my family, my old school, my old basketball club. But after all, home is a feeling not a place, and I am really grateful to have my family by my side. That’s what is helping me to make it through.”

“Will you ever go back?” I ask George.

George has learned to be realistic. “I wish I can go back to Syria, but I’m afraid this will not end soon, so it’s just wishing and dreaming for now.”

Special thanks to Wardeh in Syria for all her inputs. Sasha J. Mattar contributed to this story from Lebanon.