x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

UN bid to educate thousands of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon

An estimated 15,000 school-age Syrians are registered with the UN in Lebanon, but activists fear many who aren't will miss out on education.

BEIRUT // Schools in Lebanon are opening their gates to thousands of Syrian refugee children as the academic year starts this week, creating a logistical headache for the education authorities and aid agencies.

An estimated 15,000 school-age Syrians in Lebanon are registered with the United Nations' Refugee Agency, although the actual number is believed to be far higher given that not all families who fled the civil war across the border have made their presence known to the authorities.

The education ministry announced this month that all school-age Syrian refugees were eligible to enrol in the Lebanese state school system, with any related fees covered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other partner organisations.

"It is extremely important to get these children back into a school system," said Dana Sleiman, a spokeswoman for the agency.

"They have been through a lot, had violent experiences and suffered trauma. It is very important not to disappoint these children and to bring them back to as normal a lifestyle as possible."

UN agencies and other groups have been working to reach out to the estimated 74,000 Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon to inform them about school enrolment. But not all have been reached.

Sitting in a dingy, cramped two-room flat in the south Beirut neighbourhood of Bir Hassan, a Syrian man, who would only be identified as Abu Sahar, said he has struggled to enrol his three eldest daughters in school.

The 34-year-old has neither registered his family's presence in Lebanon with the UNHCR nor contacted any other organisation, relying on his dwindling savings to cover their costs.

The father of five girls - aged between 10 years and six months - arrived in Beirut at the end of January after fleeing the fighting in their village in the northern Syrian province of Idlib.

Abu Sahar, who is trying to find work as a handyman, has relatives in Lebanon, so decided to risk the long journey south rather than crossing over into Turkey, where the family knew no one.

"It was less dangerous to leave than it was to stay," he said. "We thought, at first, we'll come here for a visit, just a short time and then go back. But, the situation hasn't gotten better."

With no sign that the violence in their home country will end soon and no indication when they will be able to return, Abu Sahar, who left school at 12, and his wife said they would continue trying to get 10-year-old Sahar, Zeinab, 6, and 5-year-old Fatima places at a Lebanese school.

"We want to do something," he said. "I was planning on a good education for my daughters."

Ms Sleiman said that one of the challenges in placing Syrians in schools has been getting the information out and encouraging people to enrol their children. As of late last week, the agencies tasked with the back-to-school effort had recorded an estimated 2,000 Syrian refugees registered in Lebanese government schools for the new academic year.

But Fadi Yarak, director-general at the ministry of education, said the number was expected to jump considerably in the coming days.

Registration for places at government schools for this academic year can be made until October 10.

There is also the challenge of trying to place Syrian students in some schools here that are already at full capacity - something Ms Sleiman said was one of UNHCR's main concerns.

"We are trying to come up with alternative solutions to enroll as many students as possible," she added.

Another challenge has been how to integrate Syrian students, who are used to a different curriculum and languages of instruction.

In Syria, government school students are taught predominantly in Arabic. Lebanese schools also instruct in French and English.

To help, remedial classes are being planned to support the students but some groups have suggested that separate schools should be set up to teach Syrians their own system.

While the government and aid organisations in Lebanon say they are doing what they can to get the thousands of Syrian students into schools, activists fear that some, such as Abu Sahar's daughters, may continue to fall through the cracks.

"The problem is that everyone is dealing with the Syrian refugee issue too late," said Wissam Tarif, a Beirut-based Avaaz global campaigner working on Syria.

"No one has been thinking long-term. This refugee issue is not disappearing. We have to switch from wishful thinking to a realistic, long-term hosting plan, covering all aid and education."

zconstantine@thenational.ae