Decline in education for Syrian children "worst and fastest in region's history"

Press Releases, 13 December 2013

GENEVA/NEW YORK/AMMAN, 13 December 2013- The decline in education for Syrian children has been the sharpest and most rapid in the history of the region, according to a new paper published today.

"Education Interrupted" highlights that since 2011 nearly 3 million children from Syria have been forced to quit their education as fighting has destroyed classrooms, left children too terrified to go to school, or seen families flee the country. Progress achieved over decades has been reversed in under three years.

The paper is the first attempt to quantify the full extent of the staggering decline in education in a country where primary school attendance rates stood at 97 per cent before the conflict began in 2011.

More than 1,000 days of bloodshed in Syria have seen millions of children lose their education, schools and teachers.

At best, children are getting sporadic education. At worst, they drop out of schools and are forced to work to support their families.

Inside Syria, 1 in every 5 schools cannot be used because they have been damaged, destroyed or are sheltering internally displaced persons, says the paper. In countries hosting Syrian refugees, between 500,000- 600,000 Syrian refugee children are out of school.

The worst affected areas inside Syria are those where fierce violence is taking place including A-Raqqa, Idlib, Aleppo, Deir Ezzour, Hama, Dara'a and Rural Damascus. In some of these areas attendance rates have plummeted to as low as 6 per cent .

Syria was a regional leader in education enrolment before the conflict, yet in less than three years the sharpest regression in education of anywhere in the region occurred with dire consequences for the future.

The paper details some of the factors that have contributed to the rapid emptying of classrooms.

Inside Syria, intensifying violence, large population displacement, the killing and flight of teachers and the destruction and mis-use of schools have all made learning more difficult for children. Many parents report that they have no option but to keep their children at home rather than risk sending them to school.

In neighbouring countries different language and dialect, different curricula, limited or no learning spaces, physical safety, poverty, and community tensions are keeping children away from classes. Meanwhile, children and teachers from host communities are faced with over-crowded classrooms and increased pressure on education systems.

The paper also sets out critical actions that if taken now could reverse the slide. These include:

  • Protection of education infrastructure inside Syria including ending the use of schools for military purposes, declaring schools as zones of peace, and holding accountable those parties to the conflict who violate the protection of schools.
  • Doubling of international investment for education in host countries to expand and improve learning spaces, recruit additional teachers and slash the costs of getting children into classrooms.
  • Innovative approaches to overcome education needs of Syrian refugee children through such as transferrable certification for refugee students.
  • Scaling up proven models such as home-based learning, non-formal learning centres and child-friendly spaces that provide psychosocial support for children

For more information, please contact:

  • Juliette Touma, UNICEF, +962 79 867 4628, jtouma@unicef.org
  • Marixie Mercado, UNICEF,+41 22 909 5716; Mobile +41 79 756 7703, mmercado@unicef.org

Read "Syria Crisis: Education Interrupted"

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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