Educational Aftershocks for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

by Sarah E. Parkinson | published September 7, 2014 - 11:57am

More than 50 percent of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon are 17 or younger. Back home the great majority of them were in school. But youth who try to continue their education in Lebanon face social, economic and bureaucratic obstacles. The cost can be so steep that their parents may opt to keep them at home. There is a lengthy wait list to attend Lebanese public schools, which are soliciting outside donations to pay teachers and other staff for a second shift made up of refugee children. There is outright hostility in the Lebanese government to the idea of hosting refugees from Syria indefinitely.

Two long-term consequences of the educational system stand out.

First, schisms are forming along lines of national identity.

In Lebanon, refugees from Syria fall into two main national groups: Syrian nationals (possessing Syrian IDs and passports) and Palestinian refugees who were living in Syria (and who carry Palestinian IDs and travel documents). In Lebanon, there are currently 1,176,971 registered Syrian refugees and approximately 53,070 Palestinian refugees from Syria (abbreviated as “PRS” by the United Nations and humanitarian agencies). In pre-war Syria, students from both groups attended school and university together and had functionally equal access to education. In Lebanon, due to their status as Palestinian refugees, PRS have the right to attend schools run by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which are located in or near existing Palestinian refugee camps and communities. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which registers and provides aid to all non-Palestinian refugees, does not run schools. UNICEF did, however, provide heating fuel to schools with Syrian students during the past winter.

Syrians must attempt to enroll in Lebanese public schools, pay tuition at private facilities or attend unofficial programs run by NGOs. The dropout rate for Syrian students in Lebanese public schools is approximately 70 percent. Illustrating one reason for this statistic, one Syrian mother noted that she desperately wanted her 9-year old, Mazin, to attend school but that he was “humiliated and beaten there.” Mazin reported that Lebanese students targeted him because he was behind, especially in science and math. These subjects are taught in Arabic in Syria but in English or French in Lebanon. The boy was given no help with the European languages.

Mazin’s struggle with Lebanon’s more advanced, bilingual curriculum stands in contrast to UNRWA’s success integrating 7,486 PRS into the Lebanese curriculum via separate summer classes and intensive English language instruction. In short, PRS have an educational advantage over Syrians due to their status as “double” refugees who qualify for services under UNRWA’s pre-existing aid infrastructure in Lebanon.

Hierarchies matter. Segregating Palestinian and Syrian students who previously attended schools together into Palestinian and Lebanese schools, respectively, may bring simmering resentment to a boil. Research has consistently noted that volatility in social status -- both individual and collective -- can produce interpersonal violence. Educational segregation in the United States (a drastically different context, to be sure) has been linked to divergent political opinions and conservative political mobilization.

There are already other disparities between the two groups. It is typically simpler, safer and less expensive for Syrian refugees to register and receive residency permits through Lebanese General Security. PRS receive cash aid from UNRWA; an inter-agency program used to provide a small number of Syrians living at high altitudes with cash aid. Due to funding limitations and political delays, however, this vulnerable group has not received cash aid since April. Some NGOs also operate their own small-scale cash transfer programs. Health care is frequently cheaper and more accessible, though still limited, for Palestinian refugees via UNRWA and the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. Many NGOs have sought to blunt the effects of this differentiation by emphasizing that they accept all nationalities into their programs. Moreover, the unmeasured benefits of informal information sharing and social support among PRS, Syrians and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon should not be underestimated. But the lesson that national differences constitute a hierarchy and that they determine access to services is still overwhelmingly strong.

Second, education may be judged “not worth” the costs and the dangers.

In both the Lebanese and Syrian systems, students enrolled in official schools must take the Brevet and the Baccalaureate -- major exams that follow the ninth and twelfth grades, respectively. Passing the Brevet allows students to advance to high school; without a passing grade, students may not continue. Similarly, passing the “Bac” allows students to apply to universities.

For the last two years, the Lebanese government has informed refugees from Syria that to register for these exams, they must do the following, in order:

  • Obtain their grades from the last three years from their school in Syria;
  • Bring these records to the Syrian Ministry of Education to receive a stamp;
  • Acquire certification from the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs;
  • Visit the Lebanese embassy in Syria to get another stamp;
  • Following entry into Lebanon, visit the local branch of the Lebanese Ministry of Education for an “equivalency.” There, refugees are asked for their residence permit (which costs approximately $200) and a Syrian identity card (huwiyya) that has been stamped by the Syrian embassy in Lebanon. It is critical to note that refugees under 15 do not have an ID and are thus asked for their family’s ikhraj qayd (civil registry, also referred to as a family book) instead.

According to an administrator in the Lebanese system, the total cost for this process runs approximately $500 per student. Large families with little money -- the majority of refugees from Syria are already in debt -- may have to choose between rent, food and a child’s proper enrollment. Children who have had academic or disciplinary difficulties, those who might be sent to work instead of to school, marriageable girls, and those with disabilities are more likely to be selected out by this system.

Beyond the prohibitive price tag, there are other hurdles. Syrians fleeing violence may not have time to grab the kids’ report cards, much less get them stamped by the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs and the Lebanese embassy on their way to the border. Some parents risk a return trip to obtain the necessary paperwork, though they may be denied re-entry to Lebanon (which is now standard Lebanese policy for PRS), become trapped by fighting in Syria or arouse the suspicion of Syrian authorities. In Lebanon, forcing families to show a family book may reveal siblings, parents or grandparents whose registrations have expired -- or who are conspicuously absent (and thus are suspected of being fighters in Syria). Moreover, Palestinian families in particular can never be sure if they have run afoul of the constantly changing visa and registry regulations. They may decide that the risk of deportation outweighs the benefit to the child of continuing in school.

Though students are sometimes permitted to take the exams at the last minute, without the paperwork, this system shapes behavior throughout the school year and provides disincentives to enrollment, particularly in the ninth and twelfth grades. It also links education to the entire family’s legal status -- a teenager trying to finish school may wind up being arrested or deported along with the whole household.

Educational exclusion stands to have a profound impact on refugees from Syria. Schooling during crisis situations plays a central role in children’s social and psychological wellbeing (though Mazin’s experience impels us to consider negative effects as well); exclusion both denies these benefits and exposes children to further risks. Literacy rates among Syrians are set to drop dramatically from the level of 83.6 percent reached in 2008, with untold economic consequences. Lack of education can reverberate for generations; the importance of parental education in outcomes such as family and children’s health has been demonstrated repeatedly.

Refugee parents in Lebanon now refer to their children with the terms “burned generation” or “lost generation.” They understand that school is essential not only for learning, but also for socialization and maintaining children’s sense that they have a future. They see children and teenagers who are experiencing new forms of discrimination, differentiation and exclusion in exile and will behave differently from their elders as a result. In the long run, parents worry that today’s youth will be ill prepared to cope with the physical and economic demands of reconstructing Syria. They also recognize that their children’s experience with education in exile may imbue them with new political and social biases, making the eventual reconstruction even more fraught.

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