The Miseducation of Syrian Refugees

Children in the Za’atari refugee camp continuously face disruption. Roughly 80,000 refugees live in two square miles of Jordan, where many families are situated in compact homes and attempt to create a life for themselves as their native Syria remains a battleground. Much ado has been made about Daesh’s potential to recruit displaced children, but Professor Karen Fischer explains to Seattle’s King 5 that “there’s no strong evidence” for such accusations.

What she has noticed on several visits is a lack of educational infrastructure.

Established in 2012, the camp is now the second-largest in the world. And school-aged kids between the ages of 5 and 17 make up 37 percent of those encamped. The United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees and Refugee Agency monitor active registration and updates as needed.

Instead of being in school to learn, the children are now left to roam aimlessly around a camp. Fischer wants to help the refugees find new ways of offering education and literature for the kids. Unfortunately, after two or three years of inconsistent or no education, the disruption will be felt for generations.

 

‘same hopes and dreams’

One way of help build an informational education is to increase the network of libraries and makeshift schools in the camp. Long days offer little respite in the harshest part of the year. Books are a way to escape into another world and see a bright future—not ongoing disruption and reminders of a life before.

Some nonprofits like Techfugees and commercial companies are donating technology to allow students to attend school. And it’s harder to find compromises in a large summit, but the companies are willing to work together find a way to promote education, especially for girls, through smart implementation. It’s a solid solution but the price of tablets and computers in the busy community limits those with access. It’s harder to do work with more than one child in a home if sharing since textbooks and assignments are dependent on unstable, intermittent connections.

Right now, the world faces the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. But that doesn’t mean the children remain unable to fight the odds and find some sense of normalcy.

“One of the things we find is that youth are the same everywhere. All parents, all young people, they have the same hopes and dreams, and we find that youth are incredibly creative. We find that they’re incredibly resilient,” says Fischer.

The distinction is important because it tells a story of survival in a very uncomfortable situation where children are forced to work in order to feed their family. NPR’s “Here and Now” spoke to a boy named Hasan Ahmad, first in January 2015 and then again in 2016, and Raed Nimri, program director of Mercy Corps in Jordan.

During winter “electricity is only supplied for the refugees’ caravans from 4 p.m. till 3 a.m. in the morning,” said Nimri. If electricity is only available at certain times and the ravages of war feel endless even in exile, it explains the movement back to war-torn Syria.

In contrast to what Fischer notes, the NGO leader has another view of how schooling continues to stall. “I mean education is available, however once children finish high school, mostly there’s not much to continue after that.” With little employment and economic opportunities, the teenagers graduate with little chance of a comprehensive future. Especially for babies born in the refugee camp with no memory of their family’s homeland or life outside a cramped village.

 

‘The cost of our self-respect’

According to the UNHCR, a sample of 80 children indicated 53 students were not in school. A staggering number. The lack of potential may be why 14-year-old Ahmad wants to become a professional wrestler and live in Canada, which recently relocated 25,000 refugees. The future is outside the Middle East, away from their homeland and culture.

For some families that face a lack of a worthwhile future, a return to Syria isn’t unheard of. “Some people are going back to Syria because they are a little bit desperate with the life here and they think that being home even with the war is easier than being here, you know, doing nothing,” said Nimri.

What does it mean for children who constantly find themselves uprooted? UNICEF is working with NGOs and government agencies to prevent the grim prospect of a lost generation. One major point of contention is the lack of instructor training for children facing psychological trauma. According to one young woman refugee, Muna, the Za’atari teachers blamed the war on the children out of frustration.

The 17-year-old describes the situation. “We can’t get educated at the cost of our self-respect. We fall victim to verbal abuse, and are bundled together as Syrians even if we didn’t do anything wrong.” Formal education holds value, but it doesn’t work for everyone—especially not children facing abuse from those in power, a feeling all too familiar.

Mothers interviewed by The Times report the same behavior and lack of respect for children facing loss and need. Classroom sizes average between 80 and 120 students. Americans are unhappy with 30 students per classroom because of the lack of attention.

How can an educator reasonably teach lessons with four times the amount and little resources? Personal frustrations combined with professional expectations lead to long-term psychological damage for all parties.

This is where books become important as agencies train teachers how to respond to vulnerable children. For students who need space and recovery time, a lending library offers opportunity to still be active in a community. Smaller interactions with people as mental barriers rebuild still provide human contact without consistent expectations.

 

‘One of the strongest tools’

Books are cost-effective, though. With the high number of children, costs of education grow. It’s not a permanent solution, but in the small, overcrowded refugee camp, the square paper offers relief in spite of ongoing conflict and a civil war. Children want to learn and to invent.

And citizens around the world are responding to the importance of supplemental education. Denison University students won a Davis Projects for Peace Award in 2015 with a plan of purchasing 500 books to help children remain curious and engaged.

Alison Sheldon and Jennifer Reyes believe in the power of learning. “Education is one of the strongest tools an individual can utilize for empowerment as well as a nonviolent approach to tackling issues and conflicts in the modern world.”

Working with Dar Al Yasmin (DAY), the two students want to “to foster reading by creating an environment in which community members can actively seek out educational materials.” Local agencies and volunteers will help inspire more curiosity.

Providing reading material alleviates stagnant boredom. Books ranging from educational to pop culture allow inquisitiveness to turn into positive action. Motivation for children stuck in a mired situation eliminates the looming threat of a ‘lost generation.’

Jessica Hannan

Owner of Wild Pantheon Press, Clever Girl, and Research Queen Productions. Fan of looking at the world and seeing a whole new outlook at every turn. And definitely nerdy for academics.

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