x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Jordan's friendship to the youngest Syrians

With more than half of the registered Syrian refugees in Jordan - or about 27,000 people - of school age, according to the United Nations, Jordanian authorities have made a concerted effort to accommodate them in its schools.

Syrian classmates enjoy a break in the  schoolyard in Jordan.
Syrian classmates enjoy a break in the schoolyard in Jordan.

RAMTHA, JORDAN //When she first met her classmates at her new school in Jordan, Fatmeh cried.

"They hurt my feelings," the 14-year-old Syrian refugee says. "They told me, 'You Syrians have ruined our country'. But I said, 'You must accept us'. They started to, little by little. Other girls were kind to me and asked if I had books and went with me to the warehouse to get them."

Fatmeh's tearful first days at Zeinab bint Al Rasoul School are being repeated elsewhere as Jordan's congested school system, already suffering from overcrowding, a teacher shortage and crumbling infrastructure, struggles to cope with an influx of children fleeing with their families from the bloody uprising against Bashar Al Assad's regime.

More than 85,000 registered refugees from Syria are in Jordan. In August, Amman announced that Syrians could register at Jordanian schools and 17,000 Syrian pupils will start the school year there. The vast majority of them are in the border towns of Ramtha and Mafraq.

Three thousand others are going to be enrolled as soon as the education ministry determines which schools can accommodate them, said Abdul Hakeem Al Shoubaki, the director of formal education at the education ministry.

With more than half of the registered Syrian refugees in Jordan - or about 27,000 people - of school age, according to the United Nations, Jordanian authorities have made a concerted effort to accommodate them in its schools.

Unicef started installing prefab classrooms in five public schools in Ramtha this month as part of a €5.4 million (Dh25.5m) grant to enable Syrian pupils to continue their education.

It has also adapted its psychosocial programmes and trained 1,700 public school counsellors since last year to assist many of the Syrian children who are suffering from psychological distress as a result of the violence they have witnessed.

In Zeinab Bint Al Rasoul School, where Fatmeh studies, five prefabricated classrooms are currently being built. Each classroom accommodates 40 pupils.

On the first day of school, there were 80 new Syrian pupils, swelling their ranks to 850 in the 27-classroom school.

"There was too much pressure," said Jamila Awaqleh, the school's principal. "I wanted the students to feel welcome.

"I told the students they are our daughters, they are your colleagues, they have fled their country and they will be treated as if they are part of Ramtha. They will be your friends and one day you will visit them one day in their homes.

"Tenth graders threw them a party and brought a cake. I dedicated a day once a week for Syrian students to be in charge of the morning school radio."

Ms Awaqleh will have more children pouring into her school as the violence continues just a few kilometres over the border.

"When Deraa is bombed, Ramtha shakes," she said. "I asked the ministry to provide me with more teachers. I need more playgrounds too."

For Jordan, finding ways to handle a refugee crisis is a challenge the country has faced before.

When the government allowed Iraqis to attend schools free in 2007, the number of pupils increased by more than 12,000.

Despite Jordan's open-door policy towards refugees, resentment simmered after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when thousands of Iraqis fled their country. Jordanians blamed them for price increases, which came after the government lifted oil subsidies and international food prices soared.

Many Jordanians had sympathised with the Syrians when they first started trickling in, particularly in border towns where families span both sides of the border.

But now, with the number of Syrian refugees in Jordan swelling, the mood has started to shift.

A survey by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan in August showed that 65 per cent of Jordanians opposed the arrival of more Syrian refugees. Eighty per cent wanted them to stay in the camps, while nearly a third said they feared Syrian refugees would pose a threat to the country's security and stability. Eighty eight per cent felt Syrian refugees were straining the country's water and electricity resources.

"Look at them furnishing the streets with vegetables boxes, the ambulance finds it hard to pass in the street," said Abu Haytham, a Jordanian shop owner. "Jordanian labourers earn 200 or 300 dinars a month. A Syrian accepts a hundred."

The tensions in schools are representative of wider attitudes towards refugees, according to experts.

"It takes us back to the Iraqi days but many more Syrians were registered in schools in a short period of time," said Reem Al Khatib, an education liaison officer who works with Save the Children on an education support programme for both Iraqi and Syrian children.

"Iraqi children were bullied and suffered from verbal and physical violence in public schools. It was widespread at first.

"Since the school started we received six complaints from Syrian students involving discrimination. Surely there are cases that have not been reported. Now the children are aware that they can complain to the counsellor as their first line of defence. We want them to learn about their rights."

Unicef has said it had learnt from the experience with Iraqi refugees. Dominique Hyde, a representative for Unicef in Jordan, said there needed to be more investment in psychosocial care.

"We had to adapt our programmes for the Syrians," she said after a tour of the Zeinab Bin Al Rasoul late last month. "We had years of lessons learnt … a large portion of Syrian children have seen their family members killed, their teachers beaten and abused. This creates nightmares, and in certain situations children stop speaking.

"School is one of the best settings to have well trained counsellors in psychosocial care to support the children. They are also taught when they need to refer children - let's say they have been abused - to the family protection unit."

Back at the school, Layla, a tenth grader, welcomed her new Syrian classmates.

"I tried to make them laugh by recalling funny things about me when I was little," she said. "One girl had her sketches with her. I praised her work. She drew a picture of the president. She made him look so ugly."