Return to school is only the first hurdle for Syrian refugees

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies


Tabitha Ross is a Beirut-based writer and photographer who contributes to A World at School. In August, she went with us to visit Syrian refugee children who were hoping to go to school in Lebanon.

On a second trip in December, she interviewed and photographed three of the same children to see how they are progressing now that they had returned to education. She found a mixture of successes and struggles after they were placed in the innovative double-shift system that has seen more than 200,000 Syrian children enrolled into Lebanese schools.

Ahead of the Syrian Donors Conference in London on February 4, Tabitha gives a personal account of seeing those children again and her thoughts on the issue of providing education for Syrian refugees. All the pictures were taken by her.

Two visits, two different pictures

Returning to meet Syrian children who have found school places through the double-shift system, I found anxieties remain for them and work remains to be done by us.

When I met Ahmad, Mayass and Nour on a sweltering hot day last August, none of them had any idea if they would ever make it back into school.

The girls seemed trapped in a small world of helping at home and playing in the immediate neighbourhood, while Ahmad was working in a dollar store.

So I was overjoyed to find out that all three had managed to secure places when more schools in their area started running a second shift for Syrian students in the afternoons, a scheme whose implementation has been supported by Theirworld, the parent charity of A World at School.

I went to visit them again on a cool but bright day in December, full of the expectation that they would be exuberant and overjoyed to be back in education. But the real picture was more mixed.

Ahmad – return to school only the first hurdle

Ahmad had made a strong impression on me the first time we met, with his smile as bright as his green eyes. He was smart and confident and told me he wants to become an engineer so that he can help to rebuild Syria.

But when I met him again, he seemed subdued, worried, even anxious.

While he’s really pleased to be learning again, and still cherishes his dream of becoming an engineer, returning to school has brought with it a series of new challenges that are perhaps making him realise the complications and challenges still facing him.

To start with, he was put into a class with very young children, because of the time he missed and because he doesn’t have his school certificates from Syria.

I imagine he felt embarrassed to be so much older than his classmates and the work was too easy – he didn’t feel like he was learning after all.

Now he’s been able to move to a new school and be in a class only a couple of years below his age range. This is better but the new challenge is that it is all in English – a language that Ahmad doesn’t speak. It can be hard to keep up at times.

He really needs some extra support to catch up in this area, otherwise it will hold him back across the board.

This is what is causing the lines of worry in his forehead and keeping the bright grin that I remember from meeting him in the summer away from his pale face.

Mayass – loving learning and catching up

When I met Mayass in the summer, she had only just started learning to read and write, with help from her older brother Ahmad.

This sweet and smiling 12-year-old had missed four years of education, as her parents took her out very soon after the conflict began when armed men started turning up at her school.

When the family fled Syria for Lebanon 18 months before I met her, they’d been unable to find the children school places – this was the point when Ahmad also was forced to drop out.

Despite this, the return to the classroom seems to have been more straightforward for her than for him, perhaps because she’s younger.

It was lovely to see her in school. Even though she’s been put in a much lower grade than her age, because of all the years she’s missed and the catching up she has to do, she doesn’t seem to mind.

She only had two years of schooling in Syria, was out for four, and speaks no French, which becomes more of an issue in the higher grades. So she’s making the best of the opportunity to learn and catch up.

Nour – education helping to start putting the past behind her

Nour’s story is particularly sad – she lost her brother in the war, shot on the way to school. She has also lost five other members of her extended family and her sister barely survived being injured in a bomb attack.

She missed three years of school after her family fled to Lebanon. When I met her at home in August, I carried away a sense of a girl struggling to maintain her hope and her identity in a house dark with tears and mourning.

It was great to see her in school again. Her teachers say she’s smart, works hard and is having no problems readjusting.

She seems like she’s loving the opportunity to learn and to focus. It’s not without challenges – she’s got a lot to catch up on, especially in English, which is new to her and will be the language of all her classes next year.

She cried a little when we told her how well she’s doing and how she must continue to work hard.

Even though she’s happy to be back and doing well, the scars she carries with her from her losses in Syria and those years out of school will always be with her.

But education is presenting an opportunity to start to put the pain behind her and focus on building a future.

We can’t stop here

Creating more than a million school places for children like Ahmad, Mayass and Nour is an essential first step for supporting their education and their futures.

But we can’t stop here. If we are serious about the education of these children, we need to address problems such as how to catch up on years missed, and support in English and French as the languages of the Lebanese school system, if we do not want them to be forced to drop out again.

And we must address obstacles such as lack of transportation, school books and uniforms, not to mention ensuring that the quality of the school experience in the second shift is equal to that in the first.

These children have already been hugely disadvantaged by their experiences of war and trauma and the time they’ve spent out of school.

We owe it to them, we owe it to the future, to not rest with getting them back in school but to work even harder to support them to stay there and to achieve.


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