Five years ago, Syria had one of the highest primary school enrollment rates in the Arab world and a literacy rate that surpassed the regional average to reach 90 percent for both men and women. Today, the schools stand empty or destroyed and the children are gone, many having fled a vicious and complex conflict by crossing borders into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. The devastation and suffering is compounded by the loss of access to education with around 2.8 million Syrian children out of school.
Angry, traumatized, and without a future to hold on to, many are under serious threat of radicalization. In the words of a UNICEF protection officer, “If we don’t get to these kids now, they will lose not only their sense of values, but their sense of hope.”
However, not all is lost. Individuals and civil society organizations are stepping in to bridge a part of this gap and offer these children some hope.
A Crisis of Education in Lebanon
The war in Syria has driven more than 4 million people to flee the country, half of whom are children below the age of eighteen. More than 1.1 million Syrians are now in Lebanon, a nation of only 4.2 million that is under enormous pressure now hosting an incredible 257 refugees per 1,000 inhabitants.
Of those refugees, around 400,000 are school-aged children, from five to seventeen years of age. This means that there are now more Syrian school-age children in Lebanon than there are Lebanese children in public schools. But for the majority of Syrian refugee children residing in Lebanon, education is a distant dream. In 2014-2015, only 30,000 of the Syrian refugee children in Lebanon were enrolled in school.
This is partly a consequence of capacity issues as Lebanon is not equipped to accommodate such an enormous influx of refugees. Barriers include a lack of room in schools, overcrowding, limited programs to address lost years of schooling, difficulty in supporting children with trauma, and a lack of official documentation.
Even though the Lebanese government is now implementing double shifts in schools, it is still not enough. At least half of the Syrian children will continue to be deprived of this basic right and remain outside of the formal educational system. After four years of conflict, the results are as grim as they are predictable. From a pre-war situation in which nearly all Syrian children enjoyed basic literacy, 35 percent of Syrian refugee children in the Lebanese Bekaa valley can now neither read nor write.
Poverty, Child Labor, and Recruitment by Extremists
Even if Lebanon were able to provide the teachers and facilities needed, it would not solve the problem. Syrian families face numerous obstacles to sending their children to school.
Poverty is one of the biggest problems. Many families left their homes in Syria with only the clothes on their backs and their children in tow. They ended up in the most disadvantaged regions in Lebanon, where they compete for scarce resources with equally impoverished Lebanese citizens. Others have depleted what savings they had in order to survive and are now accruing high levels of debt and facing significant levels of food insecurity. The situation is worsening fast and the percentage of Syrian refugee households below the poverty line of $3.84 per person and day has increased from 50 to 70 percent since 2014.
As a result, Syrian child labor, though illegal, is now common in Lebanon. To support their families, children have increasingly been forced to give up on education and join the workforce. Almost one third of the Syrian refugee children that are working are under the age of fourteen and some are as young as six. The vast majority work in the informal economy, with jobs in agricultural labor, construction, manufacturing, meatpacking, or other industries. Many endure twelve or fourteen hour shifts for as little as $4.
In larger towns, child labor takes on different forms, with many out on the streets begging, which also leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and harassment. This includes involvement in illicit activities such as drug trafficking and prostitution, as well as possible recruitment by extremists such as the self-proclaimed Islamic State.
For these children, this education deficit has catastrophic repercussions for their future. Without basic reading or arithmetic skills, children and youth have limited options for gainful employment or entrepreneurial activity. Critically, education also serves to keep children out of warfare, as shown in a recent analysis on the different reasons given by Syrian children for entering combat. In addition to having been tortured at the hands of government forces, having followed friends or family members into combat, having participated in political protests, or needing jobs, one other specific reason stands out: the lack of education among children who live in embattled areas with no schools, or who have been expelled from school for political reasons.
Education is also used as a recruitment tool by rouge entities looking to entrap children as soldiers. For example, the al-Qaeda linked Nusra Front uses free schooling programs to recruit children to fight for the organization. Such programs often include weapons training. The self-proclaimed Islamic State also actively recruits children for military purposes, calling them the “cubs of the caliphate.” They are encouraged to attend executions and watch the crucifixion of corpses in public squares. Like other extremist groups, the Islamic State is using schools to indoctrinate children with their ideology, train them in the use of weapons, and force them to participate in battles.
Yet, despite the obvious importance of education, it remains a severely underfunded sector at a time when international donors have only provided half of the $1.3 billion requested by the UN to meet basic refugee needs.
Given the scale of the crisis, most efforts have focused on immediate humanitarian needs such as food and clothing, at the expense of a longer-term investment in the future of Syria’s children. Thus, even though the UN needs $455 million for the educational sector alone, only $ 129 million had been received as of July 2015.
Civil Society Steps Into the Void
Numerous civil society organizations have tried to fill this gap by providing informal education and literacy classes to Syrian refugee children. Ana Aqra, which is Arabic for “I Read,” is one such association. Founded in 1994, Ana Aqra offers literacy classes to underprivileged children aged four to fourteen in Lebanon and is now trying to help the refugee community.
Since 2012, in collaboration with UNICEF, Ana Aqra has responded to the Syrian crisis by providing free education to displaced children. Along with organizing literacy classes and recreational activities, the organization has provided children with school bags, stationary, hygienic supplies, and books, and has advised parents on how to secure formal education for their children.
In order to extend their reach, Ana Aqra has organized programs to engage Lebanon’s local authorities and communities,to facilitate education and make them see the benefits of enrolling Syrian children in school. One strategy has been to seek out communities that are densely populated with refugees and lease private land in the area in order to provide safe learning environments for students.
These past two summers, the organization arranged sixteen private schools, two centers, and eleven tented settlements that have collectively provided education for 11,123 out-of-school Syrian children across Lebanon. The sessions, which ran for either six or twelve weeks, included literacy as well as math, language, homework support classes, and psychosocial support. Students were engaged in awareness programs that included lessons on nonviolence, hygiene, and different cultural practices.
The Children of the Ouzai School
One of the Ana Aqra summer schools is located in the area of Ouzai, an informal settlement on the outskirts of Beirut dating back to the 1970s. The Ouzai area houses around 50,000 individuals, many of whom were displaced during Lebanon’s 1975–1990 civil war and others who cannot afford to live anywhere else.
Syrian refugee children in the surrounding areas have been eager to attend the school at any cost, including in the past summer.
Take Amina, her sibling, and their cousin. They are refugees from Aleppo who had settled in Ouzai and had only a ten minute walk to school. But other kids in the neighborhood subjected them to repeated verbal abuse to a point where their families decided to move to another area on the outskirts of Beirut where they felt they would be more welcome. Yet the school they had attended in Ouzai had been the childrens’ one respite during a hot and humid Beirut summer—so much so that they wondered how they would now fill their days.
Another student, six-year-old Bilal, was initially reticent and clearly traumatized when he started school in Ouzai. But on the last day of school, he asked, almost in tears, “does this mean I don’t come back tomorrow?”
There was a palpable sense of achievement among these children on their last day of school as they excitedly waved their new degrees in the air.
One wishes only that this could come true for more of the Syrian children in Lebanon. While organizations such as Ana Aqra work to fulfill the basic human right of education for these children and provide them with the opportunities that they need to succeed, they cannot fill the void left by the failure of the world community.
Photographs by Maha Yahya
Maha Yahya is a Senior Associate at Carnegie Middle East Center
Maya Zreik is a senior at Cranbrook Kingswood. She volunteered as a teacher’s assistant this summer with Ana Aqra.