BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Schools struggle to accommodate thousands of refugees

  • More than 8,000 school aged Syrian refugees are residing in the country. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT: Education administrators and aid officials are working furiously to incorporate over 8,000 student Syrian refugees into the country’s public school system with the start of the academic year less than a month away.

As the crisis in Syria has dragged on for over a year and a half, the tens of thousands of Syrians who have taken up refuge in Lebanon have begun taking steps to resume lives they put on hold when they left Syria. Enrolling in school is a sign that what could have been a quick escape has become an indeterminable stay.

“I was really surprised today to see how many families were interested in education,” said Miled Abou Jaoude, who works with the aid organization Save the Children.

Abou Jaoude said many refugee communities often need their children to work, or are uneasy about sending them to school in a foreign country. But that’s not the case by and large with the Syrian refugee community.

“I’m very happy because I’m going to be able to continue my education and not have to stop like my friends in Syria,” said Salam, who is going into 11th grade and was at a school event in Sidon to register her place of residence and phone number.

“I used to be in first grade in Syria, my school was destroyed and we came to Lebanon under the shelling. Thank God there are schools here so I can learn,” said Jana, who recently came from Syria, at the same event.

Hosting over 50,000 registered refugees – and tens of thousands more who are unregistered – has raised challenges in Lebanon over the past months over their care and location. But education for students is proving to be a point of uncontested largess.

The government recently decided to allow Syrian students to enroll in classes and the Education Ministry and aid organizations are now trying to work out the logistics of how to handle over 8,000 school-aged Syrian refugees in the country who could enroll in Lebanon’s public school system for the next school year.

Some cities are taking the process into their own hands. The city of Sidon held a grade placement workshop for the city’s nearly 5,000 refugees looking to enroll in classes Thursday.

While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has pledged to cover all enrollment fees for students, there are still remain a number of challenges for students to enroll, participate and be certified for a year of schooling.

Many families have yet to be contacted about the process for enrolling their children. Others who have registered their children are so concentrated in a specific area that nearby public schools can’t accommodate all of them.

“We’re trying to find out how many existing students are enrolled in each school, and how many more students the school is able to take in,” said Lamya Husseini, who is coordinating Syrian student enrollment in the Bekaa for the Education Ministry.

“We are going to have to work with schools in other neighborhoods and areas in order to alleviate the pressure of some areas with a particularly high number of refugees. This problem is the biggest in the Bekaa and the north in Akkar,” she said.

The Education Ministry and UNHCR are considering busing students to less overcrowded schools or enrolling some Syrian students in private schools.

“We can’t rule out any alternatives at the moment,” Husseini said. “Everything is still unclear.”

The UNHCR has been holding back-to-school events to encourage families to register their children. But with less than a month until the beginning of school, officials working on the technical details of how to make registration happen quickly are running up against a deadline.

“There is no clear direction or answer regarding their children and the schools,” said Ziad Naboulsi from ALEF, a human rights and education NGO that is critical of the planning being done. “The authorities haven’t addressed the situation yet. It’s an urgent need.”

If the extra load of students can be handled, the children who do enroll and can attend face a significantly different curriculum that is much more reliant on English and French rather than the mostly Arabic focused Syrian system.

Aid groups have held language classes during the summer to help Syrian students prepare, but the challenges facing newly arrived students will still be significant.

And a final bureaucratic hurdle remains. The government has decided that Syrian refugees can attend school but that they wouldn’t be tested at the end of the year and receive certificates for the grades they complete, meaning students could potentially have to repeat years when they return to Syria.

The UNHCR is trying to appeal the decision but aid workers are now mostly satisfied with getting thousands of kids in classroom chairs for the next school year.

“Children are very enthusiastic to go to school, they had a very long summer and they want to go back to the normal life,” said Abou Jaoude from Save the Children. – With additional reporting by Mohammed Zaatari

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2012, on page 4.
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