“Education for all” is a concept we can all get behind. It’s one of the Sustainable Development Goals set forth by the United Nations this year. It’s also a fundamental right under the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees. But there remains an enormous gap between these ideals and reality. For too many children, education is simply out of reach.
The education issue is perhaps its most acute in the Syrian refugee crisis that continues to grip the world. It’s estimated that 900,000 Syrian children are out of school. Older youth often can’t go to school because they have to work to support their families. The ongoing conflict is to blame for this startling trend: it used to be that almost all Syrian children attended primary and lower secondary education.
Finding Space for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon’s Classrooms
So what’s to become of the hundreds of thousands of children who can’t write their own names? Let’s take a look at the case in Lebanon, one of the countries that has been most burdened by the crisis. In this country, where one in four people is a Syrian refugee, public schools are strained to the limits. Schooldays operate on a two-shift schedule—the first half of the day is for Lebanese children (and some Syrians if space permits), and the second half is for Syrian children. Still, half of all Syrian refugee children in Lebanon don’t go to school at all. That’s about 250,000 kids that are potentially being robbed of a future.
When kids don’t go to school, they are at a higher risk of exploitation, child labor, and early marriage. And in a region torn apart by conflict, they are at a particular risk of turning to violence and extremism. These children grow up to have few job prospects and can’t take part in their host community’s economy. Without an education, we risk seeing a generation lost completely.
For refugee children, school is necessary. School can offer social and emotional support for the traumas these children have experienced. In the classroom, children learn skills that will help them contribute to society positively—whether in their host community or back home in Syria, when they get the chance to return. When these kids are in the classroom alongside their Lebanese peers, learning the same basics and nurturing their growing minds, they have a better chance of integrating. The stigma of being a refugee, cut off from society and bound to tented settlements, can finally dissipate.
How Can We Build a Future for the Next Generation?
We as a global community have an obligation to ensure that this generation of Syrian children is not lost. We can help, even oceans away here in Washington, DC. We need to increase funding to programs aiding refugee education so that they have the capacity they need to reach the goals set forth by the UN. More should also be done to ease the financial burden on Syrian families so that they can afford to send their children to school. This means that Syrians need access to local labor markets.
Educational programs for Syrian refugees should cover a variety of subjects. There is a need for basic literacy and math courses as well as more specialized vocational education for older youth. Flexible non-formal education programs have been invaluable in offering an alternative for out of school youth.
The aim of non-formal education is to help youth develop basic competencies that they need in their practical lives. Whether learning how to read, how to use a computer, or how to fix a mobile phone, there are an array of individual skills that can boost refugees’ livelihoods.
Perhaps most importantly, education gives refugees hope. We recently heard from a Syrian teen in Lebanon, who became a pastry chef after taking vocational courses from American Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA). The 16-year-old is the sole breadwinner for his refugee family from Homs. Now he has big plans for his future: “If I hadn’t heard about this course, I was going to work in construction. Now I enjoy my work, and I plan to open my own bakery when I go back to Syria.”
With more awareness, more funds, and more classrooms, we can tackle this pressing problem and ensure that no child misses out on this basic right.