Syrian girl reads her book
Learning to hope. Teaching the displaced children of Syria. Photo ©

Mohammad Ghannam. Part of British Council’s ‘Syria: Third Space’ exhibition.

September 2015

The Syrian conflict is a tragedy of epic proportions.

The unprecedented refugee crisis accompanying it is increasingly spilling over to affect the wider region, Europe and the UK. One vital and under-reported aspect of the mass displacement is the lack of access of millions of Syrians to a proper education. Ensuring the provision of such education should form an important part of the response to the crisis. This would help to combat at source some of the factors contributing to mass migration, extremism and the risk of a lost generation that could blight Syria’s chances of recovery for years to come.

A lost generation

Hamida stands in front of her class at a school in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. She is a 14 year old Syrian displaced by the conflict. She presents an exercise to her class – a mixture of Syrian and Lebanese students – using some English. A year ago presenting in English would have been difficult for her; she had little knowledge of it and wasn’t secure enough to speak a foreign language with confidence. Now however it is allowing her to gain an education, make friends and regain some semblance of normality. This is especially true in Lebanon where the plurilingual education system means that, for Syrians entering the country with little foreign language experience, lack of English or French language skills is a barrier to accessing education and a driver of high drop-out rates. “Before I was ashamed to speak with Lebanese students, but now I can do it,” she tells the team of trainers from the Accessing Education: Language Integration for Syrian Refugee Children programme – an EU and British Council funded programme operating in Lebanon. 

Hamida is one of the lucky ones. She has been able to enrol in school and get on in life. 2.8 million Syrian children are not currently enrolled in school at all. For most of them, their childhood and adolescence is defined by a brutal conflict, discrimination, limited opportunities and increasing vulnerability. As the level of despair grows ever larger and more and more families contemplate the long, uncertain and dangerous exodus to Europe, the available space for protection is disappearing fast. Amongst those who stay, rates of child labour and early marriage are on the rise; post-traumatic stress, depression and disenchantment from limited opportunities are making more young people vulnerable to the attentions of extremist groups. Furthermore, Save the Children has estimated that the cost of Syrian children not returning to school could be 5.4% of Syria’s future GDP, blighting the country for years to come, even after it emerges from conflict.

As conflict in Syria approaches its fifth year, the Middle East, North Africa and Europe are dealing with the worst humanitarian disaster since the Second World War

The figures speak for themselves. 12.2 million Syrians are designated as vulnerable, 7.6 million as internally displaced and 4 million registered as refugees. Those that can escape Syria seek refuge in neighbouring countries, or increasingly in Europe. It is no surprise that Syrians account for at least a third of the nearly 220,000 migrants who arrived by boat on Europe’s shores in 2014 and the largest group entering Europe this year. As well as the horror stories of violence and destruction, lack of education and opportunity for the future is cited by many as a leading reason for undertaking the perilous journey

Turkey now hosts the largest number of refugees of any country, and Lebanon, whose population has grown by a staggering 25% since 2011, has the highest per capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world. In Lebanon and Jordan the influx poses a real risk to stability. It has put huge pressure on already overstretched resources, infrastructure and public education systems. To compound these challenges, both countries have a complex history of dealing with large refugee communities. There is natural concern in some quarters about creating a feeling of permanence among refugees, or allowing them to get jobs in host countries that already suffer from high youth unemployment.

Whilst humanitarian relief is an essential part of the response, the nature and duration of the crisis means the relief effort must now go beyond aid, to significant interventions that will make a lasting difference. Given the scale of the problem, refugee needs also need to be addressed up-stream. The risk of a ‘lost generation’ of young Syrians, and of innumerable young lives being disrupted in host countries, means that education has a critical role to play in giving social and economic opportunities, building resilience to extremism, and reducing drivers of further onward migration. However, only a small proportion of the money directed towards alleviating the crisis is currently being spent on education.

Education as the key

Two years ago UNICEF and a range of host governments, donor agencies and NGOs put education at the heart of the strategy to address the effects of the conflict on Syrian children. This was followed in 2014 by recognising education’s role in building resilience, thus adding it to the wider response plan. The UK has already played a significant role supporting the education of 250,000 children from Syria in formal and informal education.  

Through this work it is increasingly recognised that education delivered in a safe environment can provide recovery, healing and empowerment for the vulnerable. At the same time it can drive the long-term recovery process in households and communities by providing a sense of normality and hope for the future, as well as a means to build bridges in host communities. 

Much of the international focus has been on the practical difficulties of delivering education, such as providing access to schooling, building temporary classrooms, and recruiting and training teachers. There has been less attention on quality of education. For example, Jordanian education is often seen as lacking value by Syrian refugees, which contributes to low enrolment rates. For education to make a truly lasting difference, and the full social benefits it brings to be realised, the quality of the teaching and learning environment must be given greater attention. This is especially true when we acknowledge that refugees worldwide spend an average of 17 years in displacement, and so for many thousands of Syrian children, their school experience as refugees will be the only one they ever know.

In Lebanon, the British Council is co-funding with the EU a 28 month project that provides English and French language support to both Syrian refugee children and vulnerable Lebanese children aged 8 to 14 in state schools. Through a specially created training programme that started in 2013, the British Council and associate partner Institute Francais du Liban have built the capacity of 1,200 public school teachers who are expected to benefit up to 90,000 children. The training programme is designed first to address issues of inclusion, diversity and social cohesion through incorporating multi-language teaching instruction; then to improving levels of English and French through providing foreign language learning strategies.

One common element throughout is language skills. Despite its small size, Lebanon is linguistically rich, with Arabic, French and English all used in the education system as second languages from a young age. This poses challenges for both Syrian children trying to access education in Lebanon, and Lebanese teachers delivering lessons. Due to the crisis, Syrian refugee children have had little if any regular education or have been taught mainly in Arabic, as foreign languages are usually introduced at secondary school age. 

By addressing the quality of language teaching and the broader issues of language awareness, the programme is able to respond to some of the key issues driving social tension and school drop-outs in Lebanon. “I was so angry that I had to do training for Syrians, I didn’t want to do it,” says one Lebanese teacher after completing the programme. “[The training] made me think about my opinion that Syrians are not good….I changed my opinion and now I think that we can be equal. They make mistakes and I make mistakes.” 

The need for quality education for Syrians is not confined solely to primary and secondary level. In fact the link between tertiary education and vulnerability is often more acute. Research in Jordan showed that refugees who lack higher education opportunities have a less positive view of their future, and are more likely to engage in the conflicts that caused their displacement in the first place. With limited resources to pay for higher education, or the fact their Syrian qualifications are not accepted, or they don’t have the evidence of accreditation, this is a problem that affects tens of thousands of Syrian refugees.

The resilience built through education is especially important at this level as the conditions in which many Syrian young people find themselves in host countries – often lacking access to jobs – can serve as drivers for hostility, disillusionment and radicalisation. Skills such as critical thinking, the ability to work with others, and to debate peacefully – that are developed through quality higher education opportunities – all help to expand the potential for people to pre-empt conflict by solving their own disputes, and to question simplistic and dogmatic ideologies.  

Yet despite an estimated 195,000 Syrians aged 18-25 in Jordan and Lebanon alone, the numbers enrolled in tertiary education programmes are negligible. Quality-related issues limit enrolment on many informal learning courses and many Syrians, with any meagre savings now exhausted, are choosing to focus on gaining any employment they can, rather than part-time studies that do not provide an accredited qualification.  

Teaching hope

The British Council is seeking to bridge both access and quality as a route to tertiary education through the EU-funded Language and Academic Skills and E-learning Resources (LASER) programme, targeting Syrians and host communities aged 18-25 in Jordan and Lebanon. The three-year project is providing 3,100 disadvantaged young people with the necessary language and academic skills to meet the entry standards of tertiary education institutions, as well as providing accredited higher education distance learning online through the UK’s Open University. The British Council is also providing funds to help Syrian scholars access English language qualifications with the Council for At Risk Academics (CARA), which provides temporary sanctuary in UK universities and research placements.  

Youssef, a 25 year old teacher from Aleppo now living in Jordan, completed the initial pilot phase of LASER in March 2015. Since then he has set up his own informal English teaching project for refugee children with 12 other volunteers, reaching over 600 students in 14 locations in communities in Amman. 

Despite the hardships and tragedy of this brutal conflict, young people still believe that education offers them a route out of crisis

A proper education gives them a taste of normal life and a more positive outlook on the future that can influence their peers, families and communities. It gives them the capacity to question the different ideologies that aim to corrupt them, and delivers the skills that they will one day need to build a new life and a more peaceful and inclusive Syria. 

Until that day comes, a quality education gives children like Hamida something that humanitarian aid will always struggle to provide: the belief that they can build a brighter future for themselves.  

Author: Joel Bubbers, British Council Director Syria 

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