Campaign to enrol school-age Syrian refugees gains momentum

News Stories, 20 September 2012

© UNHCR/D.Sleiman
Syrian refugee mothers and children at a school registration centre in Baalbek, Lebanon.

BAALBEK, Lebanon, September 20 (UNHCR) Fourteen school registration centres across Lebanon are teeming with Syrian refugee mothers and children as the start of the school year approaches for more than 15,000 young Syrian refugees in the country.

In the northern city of Baalbek, local non-governmental organizations like the Sawa (Together) association have been opening their premises to serve as registration centres. Schools and local authorities have run sensitization and awareness campaigns aimed at displaced Syrian communities, while meetings have been organized with the heads of public schools in Lebanon.

"We did not expect such a proactive and cooperative response from public schools," said Sawa director, Zaki Rifai, earlier this week at one centre. "Yesterday alone, the number of Syrian refugees who have registered at the Central Bekaa Public School reached 389."

The new school year starts on Monday, but the deadline for Syrian refugees to register may be extended. UNHCR believes that as many refugee children as possible should be enrolled in local schools in host countries and the agency stands ready to support the authorities in this goal.

UNHCR, with help from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and other partners, has already agreed to cover the school fees for Syrian refugees and provide them with uniforms, books, school bags and stationery.

The Syrian students registering in Baalbek this week included 17-year-old Salma, who was a star pupil at her school in the Syrian border town of Zabadani. The shy teenager turned up to register with her mother and grandmother.

"She is terrified of missing school this year. It's very important to her because she wants to continue her education," her mother told UNHCR, while adding: "I am not worried about her; Salma speaks perfect English."

She was touching on an important issue for many Syrian children registering for school in Lebanon, where in addition to studying a different curriculum and having classes in Arabic, children have to take English and French language lessons. In Syria, classes are in Arabic, and studying a new language can be tough for refugee students, some of whom have not studied for up to a year.

The refugee agency, through its partners, has been offering remedial classes in the school holiday months to help Syrian children catch up and adjust to the new curriculum. UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie visited one such class when she was in Lebanon last week.

The initiative encouraged Syrians to enrol for full-time schooling and also helped bring the Syrian and Lebanese communities closer. Before the summer break, slightly more than 500 Syrian children were in schools in the north of Lebanon. In the first two weeks of this month, more than 1,000 had registered in public schools across the country and more and more families are contacting UNHCR to ask about registration.

Following a recent circular from the Ministry of Education authorising all Syrian refugee students to enrol in schools, the registration rates are expected to leap.

More than 51,000 Syrians have been registered as refugees in Lebanon, while a further 19,400 are waiting to be registered. Above 75 per cent are women and children. The number of registered refugees in countries neighbouring Syria has passed the 260,000 mark.

By Dana Sleiman in Baalbek, Lebanon