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Refugee children overwhelm Bekaa schools

Syrian children face difficulties in getting into the education system. (The Daily Star/Rakan Al- Fakih)

ARSAL, Lebanon: Since fleeing the Syrian city of Qusayr three months ago, Abu Mohammad and his family of 13 have had to subsist off a biweekly aid package.

They don’t have enough drinking water or the medication they need, and now Abu Mohammad has another problem he never anticipated: enrolling his kids in school.

Refugee certificates in hand, Abu Mohammad headed to one of Arsal’s public schools. But he was rebuffed and told his children would only be registered on stand-by. The area’s schools, it seems, will only have space for 100 of the 1,400 refugee children living there.

With school starting at the end of the month, and the influx of refugees showing no sign of abating, Abu Mohammad is not alone. There are over 6,000 refugee families in the Bekaa, and schools are overwhelmed by the need to accommodate new students – often with drastically different educational backgrounds – into an already stressed school system.

Space is one issue; another is the difference between the Lebanese and Syrian curricula. In Lebanon’s public schools, science is taught in either French or English, while in the Syrian public school system these subjects are taught in Arabic.

This places Syrian students in a tough spot, able to comprehend the material but not the language in which it is taught.

Sheikh Abded-Ali Atrash, the principal of a private school in Arsal and the spokesperson of a local organization providing assistance for refugees, said that “there is a big problem in placing Lebanese and Syrian students together in the same classes, especially in private schools because of the differences in second language education.” After a failed integration of 10 Syrian students last year, his school has decided to accept no new refugee students this year.

Atrash explained that one option being mulled over is the creation of special schools for refugees, staffed by Syrian teachers. There are 30 Syrian schoolteachers already in Arsal, unable to find employment for the year.

According to Mohammad Rayed, principle of the public school where Abu Mohammad attempted to enroll his children, public schools are taking the names of Syrian refugee children just in case spots open up. Like Atrash, he cited a problem with integrating different curricula, except for in the case of very young students.

Rayed suggested that Syrian children might be taught science in Arabic rather than French or English, given that Arabic versions of the textbooks Arsal uses do exist.

Although the Syrian children are having trouble getting into the education system, Maad Hamadeh, principal of the Hermel Intermediary School, said around 200 Lebanese families who fled Qusayr and Homs are also struggling to find spots for their children. Unlike the Syrians, the Lebanese are receiving no aid from international organizations. Hamadeh said most are trying to put their kids in schools outside the area, where English is taught as a second language.

Hamadeh suggested that the Education Ministry should contract English-speaking teachers and provide them with transportation to work in Hermel in Arsal.

The head of one organization working with refugees in Madjal Anjar, Sheikh Hasan Abdel-Rahman, said Syrian schoolteachers currently staying in Madjal Anjar, Saadnayel, and Marj should be utilized to teach the Syrian curriculum, even if this means creating a shift system or allocating schools specifically for refugees.

Abdel-Rahman said this would likely require finding new accommodations for those refugees who have taken shelters in schools, and obtaining photocopies of Syrian textbooks.

Fadi Yaraq, director-general of the Education Ministry, said the ministry had “formed a committee to deal with the situation, and will report back to Education Minister Hassan Diab, who will make the necessary decisions about Syrian students in Lebanon.”

He added that “the ministry will coordinate with UNHCR, UNICEF and civil society organizations to ensure the education of the Syrian students, and especially resolve the language issue by conducting special classes that will be organized during regular school hours, as well as providing them with transportation costs and school supplies.”

Yaraq said the current registration process is based on a ministry circular, which states that students’ guardians should submit documents that prove their legal entry to Lebanon, as well as documents that help determine the child’s level in school.

Students with no school documents will take exams to determine their appropriate grade levels.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 19, 2012, on page 4.

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