In Syrian School, we return to one of the themes of African School – providing an education for children who have been uprooted from their homes due to conflict or natural disasters. Indeed, UNICEF estimates that there are 25 million of these ‘displaced’ children across the world.
During the course of the series, we meet children recently arrived in Syria from Iraq such as Yusif, along with children like Shaza and Rahaf whose Palestinian families have been living in camps in Syria since the creation of Israel in 1948. For both groups, providing access to quality education poses challenges.
When large numbers of people move from one geographical area to a different country or area within their own country, education is often not a priority. Humanitarian efforts frequently focus on the provision of shelter, food, clean water and basic health care, but additionally, providing quality education for children is vital when there is so little other certainty in their lives; it gives them a sense of normality and an opportunity to engage with their peers.
For the children from the Palestinian community in Syria – estimated at nearly half a million – education at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) schools for Palestine Refugees also offers them the opportunity to preserve their own identity and learn about their own culture within the framework of the Syrian Education System.
A school building in Damascus
Syria is generous in extending education in public schools to all children from Iraq, not just in primary schooling but also secondary school places. Estimates vary, but during the period 2005–09 well in excess of one million Iraqis have spent time in Syria and many remain, unwilling to return to Iraq. This places a huge strain on the Syrian public education system, particularly in Damascus – many schools have had to cope with hundreds of additional pupils, resulting in overcrowded classrooms or even ‘double shifts’ where the school accommodates two cohorts of pupils – one set attend in the morning and the other group in the afternoon. School infrastructures, for example crucial sanitation systems, weren’t designed for such large numbers and teachers and colleagues alike must spend valuable time locating sufficient equipment for lessons.
For children and young people, adapting to another education system isn’t straightforward; they’ve left behind all that is familiar to them. There are changes in the curriculum to cope with as well as new friends, teachers, discipline systems and the need to catch up on work missed in terms or even years out of school.
In several areas of Damascus, Iraqi and Syrian teachers volunteer to give ‘catch up’ lessons to Iraqi children so that they can join classes at the start of the school year. It’s also hard to be motivated when you’re not sure how long you will be in this new school, your living conditions are cramped and it’s been difficult for your family to find funds for school uniform and equipment. In many schools counsellors help support the Iraqi students as they adapt to life in Syrian schools.<br>
Financial factors can be a key determinant of these children’s continued attendance at school; Iraqi citizens are not officially allowed paid employment. When family savings have been exhausted, children drop out of school to engage in low paid work to support their families; ten per cent of Iraqi children in Syria are working (see this article on child labour). Loss or a lack of essential documentation can also prevent children attending school.
Such issues are not unique to Syria, or indeed, other countries neighbouring Iraq. For children fleeing conflict in areas such as Sri Lanka and Darfur and for those whose homes have been destroyed in natural disasters – hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunami, for example – continuing with their schooling isn’t easy, but school attendance reduces children’s exposure to risks such as military recruitment and supports their psychosocial well-being.
Being at school helps with their integration into their new community, and helps them when they return home or are resettled elsewhere. Education offers children opportunities to develop critical skills and hope; hope that future generations will develop the understanding and ability to promote peaceful and stable societies.
UNRWA - The offical website of UNRWA (UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East)
UNICEF - More information about Syria from the UNICEF website