Nearly 2.5 million people have fled Syria to Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey since the conflict erupted in 2011. By the end of 2014, Syrian refugees are expected to number more than 4.1 million.
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century — a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” said Antonio Gutteres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, last September.
Of the current refugees, more than 1.3 million are under the age of 18. Syria’s children, both refugees and those internally displaced, desperately need access not just to basic necessities but to education as well. Many of the Syrian children have been out of school for almost three years now. And, according to the United Nations refugee agency, two-thirds of school-age Syrian refugees are not getting any education.
During a visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan late last year, the U.N. envoy on youth, Ahmad Alhendawi, emphasized the need to ensure that young Syrians have access to education and vocational training. Yet prioritizing education to support refugee youth is a hard sell in emergency-response efforts. Only 14 percent of the $4.26 billion required to implement the Syrian Regional Response Plan has been allocated, according to the U.N. The proposed allocation for education under the plan (9 percent of total funding) is relatively small compared with other priority sectors such as food (28 percent). This is a reflection of competing priorities and the lack of emphasis placed on secondary education or the employability needs of youth under the U.N.’s Education for All initiative and the Millennium Development Goals.
Humanitarian relief is typically about serving immediate, short-term needs. Education, however, is another integral part of relief requiring long-term investment with returns that will take years or even decades. Given the protracted crisis in Syria, the public education systems in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey face decisions that could commit them to 10 to 15 years of providing education to Syrian refugees. This raises critical questions about which curriculum to use (the Syrian national curriculum or the host-country curriculum, with its language variances), whether to hire national or refugee teachers, and which post-primary options to make available. Meanwhile, these countries’ formal education systems are already grappling with overcrowded classrooms and overage children as well as linguistic, cultural and religious differences.
Refugee children need expanded access to quality primary and secondary education. They need to be taught literacy, numeracy and critical-thinking skills in their mother tongue by competent teachers who can help them focus on learning and offer them social and emotional support. Consider what it means to be a young person between the ages of 4 and 29 from Syria today — forced to flee from home; traumatized by witnessing the unjust death of a mother or brother, neighbor or friend; isolated from normalcy in a foreign country. For them, the tools to survive and then thrive include opportunities for learning and socialization.
These opportunities should also include trade skills. Yet there is an unfortunate stigma attached to any form of learning outside the conventional classroom. In war-torn communities, instruction outside a formal school system is given short shrift and not treated as a way to reinforce the importance of literacy or provide a gateway to jobs. In reconstruction and reintegration efforts at refugee camps, skills training are implicitly reserved for those not smart enough to advance through formal channels and rarely involve quality standards, degrees or accreditation.
To reinforce literacy and improve access to locally relevant skills training, the U.N. in partnership with relevant government ministries should focus on creating alternative, less formal education routes for Syrian youth, setting standards for these and implementing quality programming. Even as the conflict in their home country rages, Syrian youth need a sense of future possibility and a chance to contribute to their families and communities. Deprived of self-worth, community ties and education options, too many youth will give up on learning, further fueling concerns for instability and protracted conflict.
Disenfranchised youth are a potential problem not just for Syria but for the region as a whole. At an unprecedented 30 percent of the total population (almost 70 percent in Egypt), the Middle East has a bulging youth population — a full quarter of which cannot find employment — and declining literacy rates for girls and those outside of urban areas. Furthermore, the 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report indicated that 1 in 5 young people ages 15 to 24 do not complete primary school in Arab states. In that vein, the study’s authors argued that the 2011 revolution in Egypt stemmed partly from Egyptian youth’s frustration with their own lack of skills and inability to secure decent jobs.
Help is needed from all corners to fill this tall educational order. The education ministries in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey already enroll Syrians in public schools or have opened public classrooms to teach these refugee children after normal school hours. Governments might also want to consider granting refugees the right to work. Donors should provide learning materials, professional development opportunities and compensation for educators who work long hours. Regional and international businesses also can do more to meet the dire educational needs of Syrian refugees by providing employability-skills training and basic career development either in the refugee camps or by offering internships, coaching and mentoring to refugees in the local communities where many are integrating.
The path to peace, political stability and economic growth for Syrians is complicated, but for young people, education puts a future without violence or exclusion within reach.