A school enrollment rate of 6% is terrible for the future of any country and its children. Yet this is how few children are on school rolls in the besieged city of Aleppo. Many don’t venture outside except to line up for buckets of dirty water drawn from improvised wells. Caritas Syria continues to work in Aleppo.
With the conflict now in its 5th year, Syria’s pre-war enrollment rate of almost 100% is on average half that. More than a quarter of schools have been destroyed.
Over 2 million children are refugees and the majority of them aren’t in the classroom either. The future of an entire generation is under threat. It’s the same for the entire country : peace will come one day but will young Syrians have the skills to rebuild?
Caritas works both inside Syria and in neighbouring countries who host refugees to give children access to education. Caritas also helps them return to secure learning through therapy and counseling.
Inside Syria – a shattered school system
Before the war, 95% of 14 to 25 year old young people in Syria were literate.
There’s no hope of maintaining this right now with the plummet in enrollment and the destruction of schools.
Many are used as military installations or as shelter by displaced people. Nearly a quarter of teachers have been forced to leave their jobs and an unknown number of younger children have never even been inside a nursery school.
Where schools are operating, terrified parents often keep their children away - it’s often too dangerous to allow them outside. More and more children are begging or working to support their family’s income instead of learning. This leaves them open to exploitation and abuse – not only now, but also in their future lives.
At the Koudsaya shelter in a suburb of Damascus, Caritas Syria provides an emotionally safe space for children who have had their lives turned upside down by the war and have witnessed extreme violence and death. The children are encouraged by Caritas staff in a lesson setting to draw and write about what has frightened them most in their short lives. “They have a lot of problems inside,” says Yasmin* from Caritas Syria. “Activities which are familiar to them from school in the past can help them get the bad feelings out.”
One boy, Ali*, acts out what he has seen as he describes a drawing he has done. “This man is holding a mortar shell and the other one a Kalashnikov. There was an explosion and afterwards I watched pieces of people being put into plastic bags. Our neighbour was killed.”
Ali’s hands reach to his head to point out exactly where he saw shrapnel enter and exit the man’s head.
Caritas Syria staff also visit schools in Damascus, such as those in the Jaramana area which are managing to function. They run therapeutic classes and counseling sessions three times a week. But the need is great and Caritas Syria continues to appeal for funds and to press for peace.
*Names have been changed.
Outside Syria – refugee children excluded from education
The story is heartbreakingly the same in each of Syria’s neighbours – there are simply too many refugee children for the local school systems to cope with.
Refugee parents tell Caritas in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan that their children’s education is their number one priority and that they are desperate, hopeless and afraid for their futures. They actively fear a lost generation.
Some children do manage to get places in local schools, but often they are placed in younger classes because they have missed years of education. This – along with different curricula and languages of instruction – leaves them open to bullying, discrimination and a huge loss of self-esteem.
Caritas is working in host countries to stop Syrian refugee children being shut out of education. It pays for transport to formal and informal schools if families can’t afford it, covers teachers’ salaries when they work extended days to teach refugee children and contributes to school fees to prevent children dropping out.
Not being at school leads not only to the loss of learning but also exposes children to greater risks of recruitment by military forces and criminal gangs, to abduction and forced labour and to early marriage.
The Jordanian government allows Syrian refugee children to enroll in its public schools. But often they linger endlessly on long waiting lists, or can’t even get onto a list. There aren’t enough desks and teachers to go around so 4 out of 10 Syrian children in Jordan remain out of school or have never started their classroom education.
Caritas Jordan runs catch up classes for primary school aged children like 10 year-old Waed. The classes help her with the basic education needed for future government exams and to prepare for formal schooling should a chance come up.
“Before the Caritas classes, Waed didn’t know the alphabet. Now she can read, ” says her mother Ashaa. There are four other children in the family, who live in a small apartment in the town of Zarqa. “They all used to be down and depressed, because they had no routine and little to do. Now, on Caritas school days, they wake up early and wait outside for the bus.”
Parents also benefit from day workshops on coping with bullying or navigating the unfamiliar education system in Jordan. They’re encouraged to access any education they can to create as much of a sense of normality as possible for their children.
Caritas Jordan also runs kindergarten and special needs classes as well as child-friendly play spaces. All include psycho-social activities and counseling to address emotional and mental health needs. Support comes from Catholic Relief Services – a Caritas member from the United States - Caritas Austria and CAFOD (Caritas England and Wales).
Turkey hosts more Syrian refugees than any other country – officially around 2.2 million – half of them children. But not everyone registers with the authorities so it could be even more. Refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan have also fled to Turkey – more than half a million people living in Istanbul are from one of these three countries. It makes getting a place in the classroom almost impossible.
The national school system is not being expanded and there are also other barriers - fees, school supplies and a different language. Many children have to contribute to their family’s income – so they look for work instead of looking at books and blackboards.
There’s hope though, in an initiative being taken by refugees who were themselves teachers in Syria – they’re setting up schools together.
In a former office in the Sultangazi neighbourhood of Istanbul, 600 children are now being taught. They come in two shifts – half in the morning and half in the afternoon. Caritas Turkey has stepped in to support them because many parents are struggling to pay the modest charge of 15 Euros a month to cover rent, salaries and educational supplies. In the Arnavutkoy district, a group of Syrian teachers has been allowed to take over a Turkish government school for free after the regular students have gone home at 3 o’clock. Here, Caritas also covers the costs of paying teachers and buying school supplies. But this afternoon school is now also full with 500 children enrolled. Other children remain on the streets, begging or trying to sell trinkets.
Far away on Turkey’s eastern border in the province of Hatay, informal schools have also been set up. In Hatay there are almost 350 000 Syrian refugees, but only 20 000 live in the 5 camps established by the UN’s refugee agency, which have education programmes. The other Syrians have to fend for themselves, often living in unfinished or abandoned buildings, receiving emergency relief from a few humanitarian agencies, including Caritas Turkey.
One volunteer with Caritas Turkey said the classes had shown that it was possible to make children smile again. Although the children are supposed to attend for only 2 days a week, many want to come every day.
Mirella Shekrallah is a busy woman. As the Head of Education for the Caritas Lebanon Migrants Centre (CLMC), she has the oversight of getting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugee children into school, many of whom have missed out on years of learning and are facing multiple barriers to education. It’s no small job.
There are over a million refugees from Syria registered in Lebanon, now making up a quarter of the population of this small Mediterranean country. 400,000 of them are children of school age, according to UNHCR.
Last year, only 100,000 of these were in the Lebanese public school system, the others being excluded due to a host of factors with poverty at their heart, such as early marriage, child labour, caring for younger siblings while parents work, the expense of transportation and school supplies, and a shortage of public school places. While a small number of Syrians are enrolled in private schooling, the fees involved mean this isn’t an option for the vast majority of families.
CLMC is UNICEF’s implementing partner in Lebanon for getting children into the “double shift” system – a remarkable policy that is seeing a growing number of Lebanese public schools opening their classrooms to teach Syrian students in the afternoons, after the existing students have finished for the day in the morning. It is CLMC’s responsibility to identify and refer children into the programme. CLMC is working with every public school in the country on this.
While Caritas refugee support and development projects contribute to family income and help parents to keep their children out of work and in the classroom where possible, for the poorest families there are also education grants, and CLMC is paying for the school transportation costs of the 40 000 most vulnerable – those living in the deepest poverty, in the most difficult areas.
Awareness-raising among parents is key. Outreach sessions across the country help parents negotiate the bureaucracy of getting children into school, and emphasise the importance of education and supporting and encouraging their children to learn.
In addition, CLMC is providing school supplies and stationary to every one of the 360 000 primary school students in the country, Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and other.
And in a project funded by Caritas Austria, Caritas Germany, and the Caritas Emergency Appeal for Syria and Iraq, 1,500 students who could not find places in public schools and who are paying for private education receive contributions towards their fees.
As a result of all this, this year a stunning extra 57,000 refugee children are going to school.
Raneem Shagali, slight for her 11 years, pale but with eyes alive with intelligence and interest, is one child whom Caritas is assisting to go to school. She was colouring with her three sisters at home in Aleppo one day when a bomb fell on their house. The windows flew in, shattering the glass everywhere. “ If they had been next to the window,” says her mother Ghadir, “they would have been cut to shreds”.
Ghadir’s husband was already in Beirut, where he had been working as a driver for some years. The family packed a few bags and left, terrified by their narrow escape. They thought they would be back in a few weeks, when things were quieter. Four years later, they have never returned.
Raneem and her sisters spent a year out of school. When asked how she felt during that time she says immediately ‘I felt sad because I couldn’t study.’ But meanwhile their mother, who was forced to leave school at 15 herself to get married, despite being a good student and wanting to continue, was doing everything she could to get them into school. She got all their school certificates reissued and recognised in Beirut so that they could get back into the right grades, walking for hours across the city because she lacked the cost of transport. “It was exhausting,” she says, “but education is the most important thing. Education is their weapon. They will need it in this world to continue in life, to get a job, to succeed. With education, it doesn’t even matter if they don’t want to get married.”
Recently someone asked if they could marry Raneem’s eldest sister, Israa-Sally, who is 15. Her parents gave her the choice: marry, or stay in education. She chose to stay in school, her mum explains proudly. “I encouraged her to continue her studies, she had no pressure to marry from me. She has the complete liberty of choosing what she really wants.”
Israa-Sally is the only daughter with a place in a public school, all the others are in a private school. Caritas is helping with the fees to ensure they don’t drop out of education again. “Caritas really helped me”, explains Ghadir. “even though it’s not a big amount, it makes a big difference.”
As for Raneem, her teachers say she works hard and has the brains to do well. When asked why school matters to her, she replies immediately in perfect English, despite only starting the subject three years ago: ‘Education is important to me because I want to grow up and do something important in the future.’
She says she wants to be a doctor. And you can believe she’s going to make it, because of the education that Caritas is helping make sure she receives, like the hundreds of thousands of other students that Caritas is supporting in Lebanon.