Syrian Refugees in Lebanon: Back to School Scramble
By: Usama al-Qadiri
Published Tuesday, September 4, 2012
As the beginning of the new school year arrives, thousands of Syrian refugee families are wondering where they are going to register their children as Lebanese government officials and NGOs scramble to find a place for them in the country’s public school system.
Salwa (12) breaks into tears when her mother Ibtissam says she does not intend to enroll her children in school this year. The displaced woman, who hails from the town of al-Zabadani near Damascus, justifies her decision by saying, “We cannot afford the fees, and we can no longer go back to Zabadani. We don’t even know where they are going to put us yet”.
But this line of reasoning means nothing to the little girl, who implores her mother to enroll her in school (as though the mother had a choice). Salwa sobs and in a tearful voice says, “I beg you, mother, don’t let me lose out on my education.”
Ali (13), who is supposed to be enrolled in the seventh grade at his school in al-Ghouta al-Sharqiya in Syria, throws a bemused look at his father when he hears him saying that “no one in particular has stepped in to sponsor the children’s education, and I personally cannot afford it. We barely managed to pay the fare for the taxi that brought us here.”
“People like us live life one day at a time, if no one helps us school our children, then where can we get the money to pay for their education?” he adds.
But Hussein, who is in his 40s, does not subscribe to this resigned attitude. The man left Syria on Sunday to find a way to resume the schooling of his three children, fearing that they may miss their school year as happened with his relatives in Homs last year.
So, he went to al-Marj public school in the Lebanese western Bekaa to inquire about whether there are any organizations currently sponsoring the education of Syrian children in Lebanon. The authorities, he says, told him that “so far, we have not been informed of any decision in this regard”.
A public school director in the Bekaa confirmed that he was not notified of any decision by the Ministry of Education, regarding the enrolment of Syrian students, or whether an exception has been made for them. He also pointed out that the school registers Syrian students on par with Lebanese students, to study the same curriculum, “without exceptions.”
“We cannot afford to pay for our children’s school without a helping hand.” This is the essence of what dozens of dispossessed Syrian families, who are spread throughout the villages of the Bekaa, are saying. So in the absence of any plan by the Lebanese government, several NGOs have taken up the mantle in this regard, sponsoring hundreds of displaced families.
Here, Sheikh Hassan Abdul-Rahman, an official at the charity Ghurras al-Khayr, stresses that “the Lebanese government has shirked its responsibilities, both in terms of providing accommodation for the refugees currently taking shelter in private and public schools, and sponsoring the education of their children.”
“The number of Syrian families staying in schools in the Bekaa is in excess of 200, distributed among the schools of Majdal Anjar, al-Nahriyeh Bar Elias, al-Marj and al-Rawda in the western Bekaa,” according to Abdul-Rahman.
The charity official then added that “these families are in danger if no alternative shelter is provided for them, since they will be evicted from the schools and will be delivered to the Masnaa border crossing until the government can find housing for them, either in a refugee camp or in prefabricated homes.”
Abdul-Rahman also points out that several families have come to Lebanon in the past few weeks to secure schools for their children, “fearing that they might miss the school year, since they do not know what lies in store for them.”
He says that a plan is being studied by several organizations to provide schooling for the Syrian refugees. But one problem they face, he explains, “is conducting a census of the displaced families spread out across dozens of villages and regions,”
“The proposals include contracting private schools in the villages where large numbers of refugees are concentrated, that is, between Majdal Anjar, Taalabaya, Saadnayel and al-Marj, provided that several displaced Syrian teachers are hired to teach the Syrian curriculum,” he adds.
But as is well known, foreign languages are a major obstacle for those who want to study in the Lebanese curriculum.
“This is difficult for Syrian students, who may fail the academic year as a result,” Abdul-Rahman notes, adding that, “for this reason, we decided to teach them their country’s school curriculum in afternoon classes, with transportation provided for the students from the villages to the schools.”
The sheikh also points out that this plan was presented to several private school directors who welcomed the idea and expressed their willingness to do what it takes to make it succeed. In truth, Abdul-Rahman did not rule out that the plan may be put into effect next week, as soon as housing is provided for the families taking shelter in schools.
19,000 Syrian Students in Lebanon
Lebanon’s Ministry of Education says it is accepting Syrian students in its public schools but will not know where to place them until the registration process for the school year is completed.
But a simple calculation based on the latest figures published by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) indicates that 20 percent of the estimated 59,000 displaced from Syria belong to the age bracket of 5-11 years old, and 12 percent to the bracket of 12-17 years old.
This means that 32 percent of the displaced, or a total of 19,000, are children of school age.
While the ministry, according to its Director-General Fadi Yarak, does not yet have accurate official figures, it will adhere to a circular issued by the Minister of Education Hassan Diab concerning the admission of students coming from Syria, and to internal regulations and considerations of priority.
Pursuant to this circular, parents must present whatever identification documents they have available, along with official certificates issued by the General Security (DGSG) establishing that they have entered the country legally.
In addition, the parents must present all available documents (school certificates or transcripts) that can help establish that a given student is enrolled in school, while students with no documents or certificates have to undergo aptitude tests for the grades that match their age and education level.
Here, Yarak says, “We will treat Syrian students just like we treat Lebanese ones, as far as registration fees and parents council contributions are concerned.”
Meanwhile, it appears that the Ministry of Education has delegated the issue to the Ministry of Social Affairs and the High Relief Commission.
For this purpose, the ministry, according to the director-general, sent a list of 99 defunct public schools in the North and the Bekaa to the Ministry of Social Affairs, to coordinate relief for displaced Syrians, and repair and refurbish these schools with the help of international organizations and donor countries.
Curiously, Yarak is not concerned when it comes to the problem of securing places for the students, saying that his ministry is closely coordinating with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to resolve this matter.
According to Yarak, UNICEF has organized lessons for weak students, particularly in foreign language proficiency, “which we asked UNICEF to hold during school hours.” Collaboration with UNICEF also covers the provision of school supplies for students and transportation allowances for commuting from their provisional shelters to school.
One idea also being considered is to have double shifts in schools in order to be able to cater to all students.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.