BAR ELIAS, Lebanon: Abdel-Halim Fares sits on a straw mat in his uncle’s makeshift home off the main road of Deir Zannoun, where the Syrian family settled three months ago from Qusair. By all accounts, he should be registering for school, like other children intent on returning to their studies by the end of the month.
His father Yahya, once a school teacher himself, says, “They told us there was no space for him,” patting the shy 8-year-old on the head. Though Abdel-Halim’s age is typical of third grade students, if he were to return to school, he would have to enroll in the first grade. His family took the decision two years ago, while still in Syria, to pull him out of school, fearful that the area might be affected by the rampant and devastating infighting.
Lebanon has the capacity to accommodate 300,000 school children nationwide, and according to figures compiled by the UNHCR, Syrian refugees of school-going age comprise a total of 250,000 as well, meaning, in a year, Lebanon’s school-age population has doubled, while its facilities and resources have remained the same. Most refugees are concentrated in north Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley, where the strain on education is particularly acute.
When they arrived to Lebanon as refugees, the Fares family, like many other Syrians, were told by local NGOs and administrators that the schools in the area had reached full capacity and could not accommodate him.
“I talked to [the NGO] Save the Children and I talked to school administrators at public schools about a month ago, and they all told me they didn’t have space for new Syrian refugees,” Fares says.
“All of the school-age Syrian children we know haven’t enrolled because they were told there was no space for them in the public schools,” referring to the central Bekaa Valley area. There are about 50 children of school-going age in his makeshift gathering, where some 30 families reside.
Across the street from Fares, ironically, is Al-Hoda private school, which is attended by some Syrians but not the Fares family, as they can’t afford the monthly registration fee of $100. School administrators told Fares that they would gladly receive his children if extra funds were made available or if a nonprofit organization sponsored them.
“We don’t have enough information about where to go,” he shrugs. Though the family regularly receives aid from the UNHCR, he adds, they haven’t been informed about the schools or how his children might attend.
Yahya’s brother Sheaib has four children, aged 20, 18, 16 and 14, who haven’t been to school in three years, for lack of local capacity. His teenage daughter Amira says she still remembers going to school in Qusair, despite the fact that three years have passed.
“Arabic was my favorite subject,” she recalls.
About 10 minutes away, in the municipality of Bar Elias, Ihsan Araji, the principal of the local elementary school, who is expecting last year’s registered 520 Syrian students to return for the upcoming academic year, says he is not accepting new Syrian refugee students. “There is no more space,” he explains.
The school was built with a capacity for 840 students, with 28 classrooms, each able to contain 30 students. With the massive influx of Syrian students last year, it now houses 929 students, with about 42 students per class.
In order to manage the situation, most public schools have adopted two shifts, with morning classes running according to a regular school schedule, while afternoon classes run from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. The later shift is designed especially for Syrian students, with a mixed curriculum incorporating both the Lebanese and the Syrian.
“Because Syrian refugee students aren’t proficient in English, they need these mixed classes to better relate to our curriculum,” he says.
The language component of the Lebanese curriculum is described by school administrators and aid workers as the most challenging aspect for Syrian students, as the Syrian curriculum is taught in Arabic exclusively. Conversely, Syrian students typically fare better than their Lebanese counterparts in Arabic.
As registration was ongoing, Araji says he has not yet heard from the Education Ministry about a concrete plan to deal with the massive number of refugee students at his school, something he says he doesn’t have the resources to manage alone.
“Honestly, it’s a disaster. It’s a disaster for us and a disaster for them,” he says, “Some students didn’t have desks to sit in last year, they sat on the ground. We have a classroom meant for 30 students and suddenly there were 40,” he says.
And Syrians are not the only party affected, he adds, “We have poor Lebanese students in our schools too, who have no money to pay for a bag or books, and suddenly they see Syrians sitting beside them, with bags and stationery all provided for by NGOs ... this gives rise to bitter feelings, at a very young age.”
Saadeddine Maita, the mayor of Bar Elias, says that “when schools receive more Syrian refugee students, their demands on the municipalities increase as well. They call us and ask us to help them by providing desks, chairs and more open spaces for playgrounds.”
Teachers for the afternoon shift are typically hired by NGOs working in the field, notably Save the Children, which also covers the cost of school-related fees, including registration, which can cost LL90,000.
About 10 percent of the Syrian refugee school-aged population is attending school, something Save the Children is seeking to change, according to spokesperson Marion McKeone.
“We have 12,000 children in various schools, and we want to get that number to 30,000 this coming school term,” she explains, saying the organization was trying to get 13,700 refugee children back to school by supporting the afternoon shift programs, covering for school costs and locating areas that could possibly serve as classrooms.
“The burden on the government is massive,” she says, “and the international community is not paying as much attention as it should.”