BEIRUT: Eleven-year-old Ayham Ahmad has a lot of time to play with his sister these days. The young boy hasn’t been to school since his family fled Syria six months ago. At the time, Russia was bombing opposition groups in his city, killing and displacing thousands of civilians in the process. Now, like so many refugee children in Lebanon, Ayham languishes in one of the poorest enclaves of Beirut, without access to education. “I miss my Arabic teacher in Syria,” Ayham said, sitting on a cushion with his back against the concrete wall of his home. “School was the only place where I felt safe in the war.”
Although the international community pledged $1.4 billion to provide Syrian children access to school, donors haven’t delivered on their promises. Lebanon has only received 38 percent of the money pledged, according to a report by international children’s charity Theirworld. Ninety-thousand children already enrolled in school could be pulled out if the money doesn’t come through soon.
Kevin Watkins, a researcher with the Overseas Development Institute and author of the report, said European politicians were more inclined to strengthen their border security than to improve access to and quality of education for Syrian refugees.
“Many European countries are responding to populist movements, so [it’s tough] to explain to them that putting money into classrooms, education and books is a much better investment than building barbed wire fences,” Watkins told The Daily Star over the phone.
Rights groups have noted that refugees unable to put their children in school are more likely to make the daunting trip to Europe, putting the lives of families at risk. However, the cost of the journey and a smuggler is not even an option for Ayham’s family, who survive on an income of merely $500 a month. Such poverty is the norm rather than the exception, as nearly 70 percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the local poverty line, according to interagency estimates.
Ayham’s father, Waef, stressed that even though there are no enrollment fees, nearby schools have told him that they can’t admit refugees who don’t have legal status or a document from the U.N. refugee agency – both of which are extremely difficult to obtain. Such criteria violate Education Minister Elias Bou Saab’s formal policy, which permits Syrian children to attend school regardless of their legal status.
“My children just stay in the house and watch television,” said Waef, smoking a Cedar brand cigarette and drinking Nescafe. “If Ayham doesn’t have a chance to go to school this year, then he’ll have to work. He’s already helping out at a small clothing store in Shatila.”
Nadim Khoury, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East, noted that removing barriers to legal status would discourage schools from imposing their own arbitrary requirements. “There needs to be a clear message [to all schools and refugees] about what the policy is,” he told The Daily Star over the phone. “But although it doesn’t hurt to inform people about their rights ... the obstacles to acquiring residency are the No. 1 issues [for Syrians in Lebanon] today.”
Albert Chamoun, an aide to Bou Saab, declined to comment on whether supporting more Syrians to acquire residency permits was a viable solution.
Retaining Syrian students as they get older has also become a major challenge. A report by Human Rights Watch released last month stated that only 3 percent of teenagers between the ages of 15 and 18 enrolled in public secondary schools last year. The high dropout rate is a result of rising poverty levels, social exclusion and the difficulty of grasping the Lebanese curriculum with little support.
Some refugee students have said they suffer abuse from their Lebanese classmates as well as discrimination from their teachers. And while rights groups have acknowledged these issues, most say Lebanon on the whole has done an admirable job in accommodating as many Syrian refugee students as it can.
In 2014, Lebanon adopted the “Reaching All Children with Education” program, which facilitated the enrollment of nearly half the number of Syrian refugee children in the country. Watkins claimed that if the U.K. had to accommodate a number of refugee students in their school system proportionate to that of Lebanon, the government’s response would be far less generous.
“A lot of the problems Lebanon is dealing with were inevitable, considering the scope of the refugee crisis,” Watkins said. “The fact is that Lebanon has done so much to accommodate refugees in their education system. What they’ve done is actually extraordinary.”
While that might be the case, Lebanon might not be able to build on its efforts without substantial international support. Ayham is just one of thousands of young Syrian children who could suffer irreversible consequences if he’s unable to pursue an education.
Boys his age are at high risk of being forced to perform some of the worst forms of child labor. The lure of militias and gangs is also a very real threat to his future. That’s not the life he wants, of course, but it could be the one he can’t escape.
“I wish I could be an engineer,” Ayham said as he smiled, with his hands folded behind his back. “But I wish I could go back to Syria even more. I miss everything that used to be there.” – Additional reporting by Joseph Haboush