TAALABAYA, Lebanon: Syrian refugee Hosna Munajjed was turned away by numerous already saturated public schools and told to register her kids, age 10 and 8, on a waiting list at the municipality of Taalabaya.
Munajjed arrived from Syria a month ago and her children are among thousands of new school-aged refugees hoping to enroll in the Lebanese public school system this year. While the Education Ministry has put forward a strategic plan to cope with the additional influx, the outcome of this planning has yet to be felt as far as school administrators are concerned.
The sheer number of new registrants, compounded by curriculum discrepancies between Lebanon and Syria, are key challenges, they say, and will likely delay their entry to school.
“One principal told me the Syrian children in his school just sat and cried during the English class, they couldn’t understand a thing,” Munajjed says.
The language component of the Lebanese curriculum – taught in English, Arabic and French – is the most challenging component for refugee students as the Syrian curriculum is instructed primarily in Arabic.
A municipal employee, who requested to remain anonymous, tasked with overseeing the registration of prospective Syrian students, says the process has been haphazard.
“What we’re seeing is like a big scream [of frustration],” he complains, as more parents lined up outside his office. “No one is being responsible about the Syrians, not the schools and not the ministry.”
Public schools were directed by the Education Ministry to prioritize the registration of Lebanese students first, then Syrians already enrolled from previous years. Newly arrived Syrians must submit a registration request to the public school and wait until space is allotted during the afternoon 2-5 p.m. session. Assignments will be made after the registration period formally ends on Oct. 10. The head of the ministry’s Counseling and Orientation Department, Sonia Khoury, says this could be extended to Oct. 30.
“Then we’ll know the numbers, and in which schools we should open the second shift program, and how to more effectively distribute the new students,” Khoury said. “We are not worried about them falling behind [in the school year] because the students can catch up by holding classes on free days, like weekends and holidays.”
She reassured that public schools were open to all, but emphasized that “of course we have to prioritize the Lebanese because this is our duty,” citing Law 150 of 2011, which decrees primary education compulsory and obligatory for citizens.
The waiting list of new Syrian students compiled by municipalities and public schools will be sent to a regional director, of which there are six commissioned by the ministry. These individuals are tasked with assessing which schools are equipped to establish a second shift program, according to local demand and capacity. Not all schools can host the program, Khoury emphasizes; schools that are sufficiently equipped and strategically located, such as those straddling between municipalities, are preferred.
Placement tests will be conducted to evaluate whether a given child is able to cope with the curriculum. Those who pass will continue on to the next level and those who fail might be asked to repeat the grade. “If they pass the placement test, then we know that they can handle it,” Khoury says.
This year’s strategy seeks to evade last year’s open-door ad hoc policy that taxed some schools and cost the ministry $27 million in direct costs. About 33,000 Syrian refugees attended public school last year, “But a certain number were moving from school to school, dropping out, going and coming ... So we didn’t really feel as though they were retaining anything.”
According to the UNHCR there are an estimated 270,000 Syrian school-aged children; UNICEF aims to have 60,000 of them enrolled in the public system. The remainder will have to benefit from informal educational support programs, according to UNICEF Lebanon representative Annamaria Laurini, who spoke at a news conference Tuesday.
However, the principal of Taalabaya’s public elementary school, Michel Hatti, believes the start of the school year for new Syrian registrants will be delayed.
“I don’t expect them to enroll these new children until February,” he says. “These new students need new contract teachers, and the hiring process could drag on.”
Last year, Hatti enrolled 105 Syrian students and requested new teachers be hired by the ministry for additional classes, to alleviate classroom overcrowding – something so severe in his school that teachers jokingly refer to it as “the refugee camp.” Having put in the request in September, documents made available to The Daily Star showed that the teachers began work in December and January. “We expect the same thing to happen this year.”
The school accepted 135 additional Syrian students this year and is now operating at full capacity. Syrians who came after that date were redirected to the municipality.
“The regional director [from the Education Ministry] told me to enroll them anyway, but I refused. If I enrolled them, then I would have to be responsible for them,” he said.
Hatti also refuses to enroll students between grades 7-9, saying at this point the curriculum would be too difficult. Accelerated programs running in parallel to formal education, he believes, are the key to their academic success.
“The [Education] Ministry has no plan; they are acting spontaneously,” he says, “During the summer months there was news every day of the coming refugees – most of them children. They didn’t think of a plan to deal with them then. But when the school year started they went about it in a chaotic way and didn’t know what to do.”
In Tripoli’s Public School for Boys, Principal Walid Dinnawi chimed in, saying the ministry did not have an effective contingency plan to account for the curriculum differences.
The school was better off than most as the construction of an additional wing over the summer enabled it to accept all the new Syrians applicants who approached them. But Dinnawi complains that Syrians consistently struggle with the language component. “I had one student who scored 0/10 on his English placement exam, but his mother begged us to take him.”
Administrators welcome the idea of specialized schools for Syrians, akin to the UNRWA model for Palestinians, that would teach them the Syrian curriculum exclusively.
Noticing the difficulties Syrian children were having with language, a group of volunteers, all refugees themselves, established The Syrian Board of Education in Lebanon last year.
Jamal Abdel-Bar, the head of the organization, based in Tripoli’s Abu Samra, says funding was acquired from local charities and philanthropists to set up 10 unofficial schools across the country. In addition to Tripoli, he says, they are operational in Arsal, Mount Lebanon, Minyeh, Shahim, Aramoun and Akkar. So far, the organization counts 3,000 Syrian pupils.
“We’ve been spreading the word through aid organizations and social media,” Abdel-Bar explains. Taalabaya stands out as its sole municipal patron, as Syrians are obliged to fill out their organization’s registration form in tandem with the ministry’s.
However, Khoury warns that the board’s activities are illegal, as far as the government is concerned. “They are reaching out to Syrian students to make sure they enroll in the Syrian curriculum, but this is not allowed,” as it would require changing national legislation, she explains.
“We can’t allow for the opening of schools that strictly teach the Syrian curriculum, this is clear.”