Lessons learned from the Refugee Education Workshop at Stanford University.

More than half of the 4.8 million refugees who have poured out of Syria are children. The world sees their faces as they cling to parents, bob in overburdened boats, cry in the arms of volunteers on beachheads. The public rarely sees them in school.

Syrian refugee children are going to school, of course. In fact, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken points out that today there are more Syrian children in Lebanese public schools than there are Lebanese.

But as Blinken said at a January 2016 Refugee Education workshop that UNHCR’s Learn Lab attended at Stanford University; “Across the world, the most severe consequences of all this suffering and displacement have fallen most heavily on the smallest shoulders.”

Despite the best efforts of the governments in the region, most school-aged refugees living in host countries remain without access to education.

Some 921,370 school-age children are out of school (UNICEF 2016. Syria Education Fact Sheet. March). The majority of them want very much to return to the classroom, but current efforts to get them there have come up short. Those who do enroll often face challenges of their own, as do the school systems that try to integrate them.“What we found out over the past year is that, despite a massive effort, our existing resources and responses are simply not enough,” Blinken said at Stanford.

“The magnitude of the problem is greater than the solutions that we bring to bear at the moment.”

Why is providing Syrian refugee children with access to quality education while they await a durable solution so sticky?  Here are five of the most notable reasons.

1. The language of displacement

Refugee children living in Lebanon are eligible to enroll in public school, and hundreds of thousands have. Challenges posed by space limitations and resource constraints are obvious but these students face a more fundamental problem when it comes to learning: they don’t speak the language.

Syrian refugee children struggle to make sense of lessons taught in English or French, which are official languages of instruction in Lebanese schools. Children have to speak Arabic and English or Arabic and French from as early as Kindergarten. As much as Arabic may not be a problem, English or French is an issue for Syrian refugees. A 2012 assessment by UNICEF and Save the Children showed as a result, children were being placed in lower grades than the ones they attended in Syria.

The language barrier is one reason that 66 percent of the 80 children in Lebanon whom UNHCR asked about education said they were not attending school. Another 2013 assessment found that 80 per cent of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon were not in school. The problem plagues refugee children in Turkey too, and even other Arabic-speaking countries where the dialect is different.

“I have been in too many classrooms where refugee teenagers cram themselves into tiny benches or sit on the floor in early primary classrooms because that is where language learning happens,” writes Sarah Dryden-Peterson, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “This is one quick pathway to drop-out and disillusionment.”

2. School itself is scary

Bullying is a problem the world over, and refugees do not expect their children to be spared. But for many Syrian refugee children, it’s not only the other children causing a problem. In some cases, it’s the teachers, too.

Peterson writes that Syrian refugee children face “ongoing physical and emotional bullying.”

Teachers likely do not want to cause harm, but don’t realize the deep psychosocial burden of what their young charges have seen and experienced. Moreover, they haven’t been trained to address protection issues such as bullying by other students and create inclusive classroom environments.

Peterson writes that the number one request she hears globally from teachers of refugee children is to have training and ongoing support they can draw on to help their students understand each other and get along.

“This training may seem a luxury, especially in national systems where teachers are trained,” Peterson writes. “It is not. Children who do not feel safe in school cannot learn and quickly become marginalized from their peers and communities.

UNHCR includes awareness raising and campaigns against bullying as a vital activity, which is also echoed as a key finding in UNICEF’s March 2015 report, Access to Education for Syrian Refugee Children and Youth in Jordan Host Communities, which suggested creating or expanding safe spaces for youth in an effort to make school environments more welcoming.

Initiatives like these will address part of the problem. But Syrian refugee children also report being harassed or abused on their way to and from school—one of the major reasons that 78 percent of children between 6 and 17 in Jordan’s Za’atari refugee camp said they were not in school, according to a 2013 education needs assessment.

3. Resource gaps

It comes as no surprise to those in the humanitarian community that education for Syrian refugee children is facing a major resource shortfall that makes it impossible to tackle all the obstacles in the way of access and quality.

As Peterson writes in another blog post, education is notoriously underfunded, and as Rania Succar of Google and Jusoor noted, “money is clearly the biggest barrier to ‘solving’ this challenge.”

Peterson points out that in 2015, UNHCR’s Regional Refugee Response Plan for Syrian refugees was less than half funded, and worse, the education portion of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Syria Humanitarian Response Plan was funded at just 23 percent.

Children whose families cannot afford the materials or transportation fees to distant schools end up missing out. Lack of money for supplies or a need to supplement family income was in the top three reasons cited by survey respondents in Jordan as to why their children were not attending school. Several countries hosting Syrian refugees do not permit refugees to work, which has a direct impact on their ability to send children to school.

But it’s about a lot more than dollars: this crisis demands more technical expertise and knowledge to bolster funding that has already been allocated. Although quite a bit of money has been contributed to this already, we need to look at how it’s being spent.

With restrictions on work permits and limited employment opportunities for adults in some places, children face even more pressure to contribute to their household’s income instead of going to school.  Schools themselves are having trouble accommodating so many more children—resorting in places to double-shift class days and extra-stuffed classrooms. There are huge numbers of students all sharing the same resources, the same buildings- conditions that would lead to strain in any education system.

4. A kitchen full of cooks

It is heartening to see how many organizations and agencies want to help Syrian refugee children access quality education while they wait—for what might be the rest of their school-age years—in countries not their own.  Despite the Humanitarian Response Plans for Syria and Iraq (coordinated by OCHA) and the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP), a coordinated region-wide response framework of more than 200 partners, including governments, UN Agencies, and NGOs to address the refugee crisis, some level of duplication, redundancy and top-down solutions is possible.

Engaging the right actors—including refugee communities themselves—is an ever-present challenge, but one that is essential for the humanitarian community to get a good grasp of what’s really going on: what is already in place, what’s working, and what isn’t.

To avoid designing duplicate programs with little on-the-ground understanding and input, organizations that often compete are going to have to work together.

We need to look across these different initiatives, build consortiums and momentum, looking at how we build on good practices at the level where they can scale. There has to be broader knowledge-sharing and a way of actually harnessing interest  in order to avoid duplicating efforts and building things from scratch.

As the workshop at Stanford revealed, there is a lot of enthusiasm and interest from nontraditional actors—companies like Facebook, LinkedIn, Air BnB and Vodafone, and universities ready to jump in with tertiary education and blended learning offerings. They bring different expertise and resources they can leverage to move things along at a faster pace and greater scale.

But even they need to do their homework before rapidly creating programs that don’t understand the nuances and complexities of the education challenges at hand. This starts with strong mapping and research but ultimately, refugees should be the ones both innovating and implementing their own solutions.

5. A patchwork of problems means no one solution

The quality of education for Syrian refugee children looks different in Lebanon than it does in Egypt, Turkey, or Jordan. Actually, it looks different for children in Amman than it does for those less than two hours away in Zarqa and even for those in a well-resourced school in the same neighborhood as another school that is struggling.

Some schools have wonderful teacher training programs, sometimes supported by the UN and NGOs, while others have no initiatives to help them better integrate refugee students.

These variegated contexts make solving problems at scale particularly challenging. Despite separate appeals, strategy documents, and different strategic objectives, programming of the response to crisis in Syria and the five hosting countries is generally aligned and there is scope to streamline activities and indicators across countries through HRP and 3RP processes.

A silver bullet will never work in environments where the contexts are so different — radically different,  even —between cities. Instead, broader knowledge-sharing will help, as will engaging communities in creating localized solutions.

We need to ensure the interest meets the communities where they live, and understand in a more nuanced way what the real challenges are within these environments. After all, they are the innovators and also the implementers.


Photo Credit: © UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin

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