Avoiding a “Lost Generation” of Syrians

Children in the Za’atari refugee camp with a mural that says “Let’s go register for school.” (Photo: UNHCR/J.Kohler)
Children in the Za’atari refugee camp with a mural that says “Let’s go register for school.” (Photo: UNHCR/J.Kohler)

The Syrian refugee crisis needs no introduction. Since the start of the conflict in 2011, an estimated 11 million people have been displaced. In American media, we are presented with news that largely focuses on the way the crisis is affecting our country and countries in Europe. While the influx of refugees has certainly affected these areas, when we discuss the crisis we must acknowledge the strain it has put on the neighboring country of Jordan. As of December 2015, there were 937,830 Syrian refugees in Jordan, as well as many refugees from Iraq and other countries. For a country with a population of only 9.5 million, taking on that many refugees is no small feat. Though it is relatively common to acknowledge the strain that the incoming population is placing on Jordan’s economy, employment, and infrastructure, there is one area of concern that is almost entirely ignored: the education system.

Jordan has a strong record of almost universal enrollment of school age children; education is compulsory for children through the age of fifteen in the country as mandated by the Ministry of Education. Any village or town with ten or more school-aged children has a school, and the disparity between urban and rural school attendance is incredibly small. Jordan shatters a lot of Western stereotypes about the Middle East in terms of education; enrollment is incredibly high, even for women. The adult literacy rate has also been improving significantly over the past few years, nearly reaching 100% in 2012. Though the Jordanian education system is not perfect, prior to the refugee crisis, educational services and access were fairly strong in the country.

However, 55% of the refugees coming into Jordan are under 18 and the education system must adapt and accommodate hundreds of thousands of new students. In order to accomplish this, the Jordanian government had no choice but to create schools which run two different shifts of classes a day, cutting into the length of the school day for students in both shifts. For Jordan, a country with a near-universal primary education rate, this change is drastic. Classes are getting larger, less qualified teachers are being hired to fill the void, and schools are being overused. Resources, like textbooks and technology, are being stretched further than is sustainable. While these are viable temporary solutions, there is no long-term sustainability to any part of this system. “Emergency education programs” can only do so much, and actually aren’t doing nearly enough at all; about 40% of Syrian refugee children are still not enrolled in school in Jordan, and many have been out of school for years.

Some of this can be attributed to a Jordanian law prohibiting children who have been out of school for three or more years from re-enrolling. Instead, these students have the option to enroll in non-formal education programs. These programs are typically focused more on life skills than traditional education, but in order to enroll refugees must have records of primary education and be able to pay a fee. This is a huge change for the Syrian children as well; pre-war figures place Syrian school enrollment around 95%. The children of Syria have done nothing to deserve their seemingly inevitable future as a “lost generation,” and the international community should step up to do something about it. The international community responded to the crisis first in 2013, launching a “No Lost Generation” campaign spearheaded by the UN and a variety of NGOs that attempted to avoid this exact problem, but the programs remain largely underfunded. Recently, the EU took promising steps toward an international solution; it is funding a UNESCO project in Jordan that helps fund and maintain educational programs for the refugees in cities, and in refugee camps.

About 80% of the refugees in Jordan live in cities, but the rest live in refugee camps which struggle to provide essential services. Zaatari, a major refugee camp in Jordan, has grown so much that it is now Jordan’s 4th largest city. The schools operating in these camps are also under tremendous pressure, and even if students are able to complete a primary or secondary education, higher education and employment opportunities are bleak at best. And for many children outside of these camps, UNICEF cites the common reasons for a lack of enrollment as an inability to afford resources and supplies, never having started school and therefore being too far behind, and lacking appropriate documentation. Many of these factors are largely out of the control of the refugees, therefore it is important that these barriers are made easier to overcome. Worldwide, it is necessary for more money to be put into education, but for the Syrian refugees in Jordan, it is imperative.

Many simple solutions can be put into place that would help, though not solve, the issue. UNICEF recommends more education about education; some families believe their children are not eligible for formal schooling and are never told otherwise. Additionally, children can be allowed into schools with a more relaxed form of documentation if formal records are impossible or difficult to obtain. Teachers can receive more training, and GIS can be used to show where refugees are and how they can utilize nearby transportation. Double shifts can also be spread to different schools, though that has traditionally come at the expense of the quality and length of the school day for each student. We can also explore non-traditional educational options and more vocational or technical options.

Most importantly, schools can work to better integrate Syrian students with their Jordanian peers, and can be more vigilant about tracking dropouts and students with low attendance. Tensions are high between Syrian and Jordanian students. The EU’s UNESCO project attempts to rectify this issue, working specifically in schools with mixed populations of Syrians and Jordanians in order to benefit both groups. However, the conflict seems greatest amongst teachers who feel that they are bearing an unfair burden to educate these students. Frustration amongst teachers is incredibly harmful to the quality of education and should be addressed. Many teachers are unsure how to help Syrian students who are psychologically distressed and others are verbally abusive to these students who they claim are “ruining” the country, leading to discrimination that could discourage parents from sending their children to school.

Despite all of this, it would be simplistic to assume that education alone can fix the refugee crisis or that education can be assured if other essential needs of the refugees are not being met. A severe lack of water resources, food, documentation, and proper infrastructure are contributing to the problem in a major way. The Jordanian government has made it clear that it does not have the funds to build the 450 schools necessary to hold all of the additional refugees. These issues represent a huge barrier to education for many children, and must be included in the discussion on solutions.

At the core of this issue, one thing is clear: education is a human right, as are the rights to food, housing, and healthcare, assured to all by the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. As we attempt to tackle this issue worldwide, we must remember to prioritize human rights holistically and not allow a generation of Syrian children to live without an education, or food and water, for a conflict that they did nothing to start. If so much of the world continues to deny these refugees, small countries like Jordan will continue to bear an incredibly disproportionate amount of the weight. And Jordan is not the only country facing this challenge; similar educational barriers and problems are arising in Lebanon and Turkey as well.

In the future, these children are the ones we are likely to call upon to rebuild Syria, so we must hope they are well-educated and well-equipped to do so. UNESCO cites education as a key factor in peacebuilding and the capacity of a society to rebuild. The UN Declaration of Human Rights calls for education that promotes understanding and tolerance of others and leads to the maintenance of peace. With an educated population, there is hope of reconciliation in Syria. Without an educated population, we are encouraging the Syrian civil war to continue and allowing this generation of Syrians to miss out on crucial opportunities to rebuild their country and lives.


Author: Mackenzie Fusco

Mackenzie is a sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts & Sciences, studying Anthropology with minors in Psychology and Cross-Cultural Communication. She is a fierce advocate for education, human rights, and promoting cultural understanding. Mackenzie is an editor for The Globe and a sister of Delta Phi Epsilon Professional Foreign Service Sorority.