In Lebanon, there are at least 250,000 refugees aged between three and eighteen who are not attending school. The numbers are even more shocking if other countries hosting Syrians in the region are taken into consideration

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In Lebanon, there are at least 250,000 refugees aged between three and eighteen who are not attending school. This is half the 500,000 young people registered with the United Nations. The numbers are even more shocking if other countries hosting Syrians in the region are taken into consideration: there are 800,000 school-age refugees in Turkey, 500,000 of whom are not in the schooling system, and 80,000 young Syrians without an education in Jordan.

IMG_0515.JPG“Good morning, what’s your name?” The women are keen to be able to try out their faltering, freshly studied English on the foreign guest. There are a dozen of them sitting on the ground in the tent’s half-light, exercise books in hand, and they have just finished a language lesson. Aisha is 36. She arrived four years ago in the Marj el-Khokh refugee camp, in the southernmost part of Lebanon (just a few kilometres away from Metulla’s terraced houses in Israel). Together with her husband and three children, she fled the war in Syria, leaving one of the cities most tortured by the conflict: Idlib. “I often thought of committing suicide after what I experienced during the war and now I’m seeing a psychologist,” she says, without stopping smiling, wrapped in a dress that is red like the veil covering her head.

Despite the sadness of what she is says, Aisha’s story is not lacking in optimism when compared to the accounts of dozens of other Syrian refugees one meets in Lebanon. She says she doesn’t want any more children, not because she has enough, but because she wants to be able to guarantee her three existing children an education. For this reason, she herself is studying English with the help of the volunteers working in the camp: many subjects are taught in French or English in the Lebanese schools and Aisha wants to be able to help her two daughters (aged eight and nine) to do their homework. She has managed to enrol them in the nearby state school in Marjayoun: after losing a year, upon their arrival, because there weren’t enough places at that institution.

Getting a child into a school: an automatic action but not one to be taken for granted nowadays in Lebanon, where tens of thousands of school-age children have no access to education. There are at least 250,000 refugees aged between three and eighteen who are not attending school: this is the figure published in a recent study by Human Rights Watch (HRW) – Growing Up Without an Education – and it was confirmed to Oasis by officials from the Lebanese Ministry of Education. This is half of the 500,000 young people registered with the UNHCR, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The figure is certainly higher, considering that not all the Syrian refugees are registered and that the Lebanese government asked the United Nations to stop the registrations as of May 2016.


Before and After the War

The numbers are even more shocking if other countries hosting Syrians in the region are taken into consideration. Turkish diplomatic sources explained to Oasis that the school-age refugees in Turkey number 800,000 and that 500,000 of them are not in the schooling system. The country would need 12,000 new schools. In Jordan, the young Syrians without an education number 80,000.

IMG_0544.JPG“This is the generation that will have to rebuild Syria,” says Bassam Khawaja, the author of the Human Rights Watch study. “Before the war, Syria had almost achieved universal education: 90 per cent of children were enrolled in primary school and 70 per cent in secondary school.” Now, according to a study by UNICEF (which has launched the international initiative No Lost Generation), there are 2.1 million children in Syria who do not go to school.

In Lebanon, the little Levantine country with four and a half million inhabitants spread over a surface of 10,452 square kilometres, there are currently 1.1 million Syrians, according to the United Nations, and 1.5 million, according to the government in Beirut. This means that one in every five inhabitants is a refugee, nowadays. In accordance with international law and although Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees (the Syrians in the country are called “displaced persons” by the local authorities), the country must nevertheless guarantee every child the right to free and mandatory primary-school education and access, without discrimination, to secondary-school education. The Syrian crisis, the humanitarian emergency and the arrival of thousands of foreigners have sorely tested the country’s social structure not only in terms of its education system but also in terms of its health system and economy, however: the refugee crisis has cost Lebanon 1.3 billion dollars since 2011 (the year the conflict began in Syria) and this sum has been only partially covered by international donations.

Already weak before the crisis, the Lebanese state schooling system is one of the realities most tried by the emergency: there are not enough teachers for the number of recent refugees, there are few state schools (about 1,200 over the entire national territory) and often the organizational structures are obsolete and have not kept up with the times. Only 30 per cent of Lebanese students are enrolled in state schools, whilst the rest frequent private, fee-paying or feeless schools linked to religious institutions.


No Money for the Local Bus

In order to be able to welcome the new arrivals from Syria or at least some of the young refugees, in 2013 the state system had to create a second, afternoon shift entirely dedicated to foreigners. And yet not even this was enough to bring down the number of children left without an education. Indeed, complex barriers remain.

Ahmed and Fahme have arrived in Lebanon from Idlib. They are living in a residential area not far from the tourist port of Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic), in what must have been the common part in the basement of a block of flats before it was rented to them for 400 dollars a month. They have four daughters, aged three, five, seven and nine. Ahmed works in a supermarket and earns 450 dollars a month. They are refugees registered with the UNHCR, which gives them a monthly food allowance of 162 dollars. “It’s not enough for six,” says Fahme, her head veiled by a printed leopard-skin scarf. And so Bushra, the oldest daughter, works with her father at the supermarket, for 100 dollars a month, plus tips from the odd kind customer. Fahme smiles as though she were dreaming when she says that her greatest desire is to see all four daughters at school. “Bushra is always saying to me, ‘Mummy, you promised me that you would send me to school this year.’ They see the other children going to school and they want satchels, exercise books and coloured pencils as well…” Her husband never studied but mummy Fahme completed five years at primary school. Bushra, her eldest daughter, managed to go to school for just two months in 2015 and it was the first time for her. She had to stop because the school was nine kilometres away and the family could not manage to pay for the transport. “If the bus were free,” says Fahme, “then I would send her, even if her father prefers her to work: we need money to keep going.”

IMG_0550.JPGDespite the efforts of the international non-governmental organizations and the local Ministry of Education’s recent attempts at intervention, there are numerous barriers blocking young Syrians’ access to education in Lebanon. The cost of transport is a case in point. A programme run by UNICEF and Caritas paid the bus fees for thousands of pupils last year, whilst some local and international non-governmental organizations evaluated the cost of supporting families’ transport needs case by case. The problems do not end with the bus, however. Often, although the local authorities ask the state schools to enrol refugees even when they do not have documents (either identity documents or school or medical certification), many school heads continue to demand these papers. A vicious circle is created, as Bassem Khawaja from HRW explains. In Lebanon, obtaining residence is a very long, difficult and expensive process, costing 200 dollars per person. Without residence, it is impossible to get a work permit (Syrians without this document are only allowed to work in the construction sector and in farming) and many adults are afraid to leave the tent camps or their homes, in case they are stopped at the checkpoints and arrested. This also has an impact on the possibility of accessing the illegal work market. Without money, families do not send their children to school since they are the ones who somehow manage to get past the Lebanese security checks more easily and, therefore, work. As a consequence, the phenomenon of child labour is growing rapidly. There are also linguistic barriers: Lebanese curricula are in English and French after a certain stage, whereas Syrian ones are in Arabic. Many children who have received the beginning of an education in Syria find it hard to keep up with programmes in languages they do not know.


Bureaucratic Complications

In the face of these challenges, this year the Lebanese Ministry of Education renewed an initiative to extend education to the highest possible number of Lebanese and Syrian young people: RACE – Reaching All Children with Education. Last year, 154,000 non-Lebanese children were enrolled in the national state system. The aim is to reach 200,000 for the academic year 2016-2017, says Nibal Jardak, an official from the Ministry of Education. This year, 330 schools will operate the second shift dedicated to Syrians, as opposed to the 238 that did so the previous year. A circular was sent to all headmasters at the beginning of the school year. The imperative is that no document is to be required from Syrians for enrolment. Steps will be taken against institutes that do otherwise.

During the years of crisis, the education of many Syrian children has occurred through the support and programmes provided by many international non-governmental organizations operating alongside the Lebanese state school system. In Lebanon, people working in this field talk of “formal education” and “informal education.” In the summer of 2014, the ministry negotiated with donors such as UNICEF and UNHCR, asking them to suspend many of these “informal” programmes run by NGOs in the territory: “Informal education must follow the lines of the formal one, adapt to the Lebanese curricula and integrate the formal education,” says Rachelle Samaha, who sees to precisely this dossier at the ministry. The framework was finalized only in December 2015. In the meantime, many associations who had been providing some kind of education to thousands of children in the camps and outside them, have been forced to empty their classrooms in the absence of funds, without being able to offer any alternative to the families. As of this school year, informal education (i.e. that which is in line with the strategy and directives approved by the ministry) ought to begin again on a large scale and also include children of pre-school age, Davide Amurri, the head of Terre des Hommes Italy in Lebanon, told Oasis.

Nowadays, most of the NGOs follow the ministry’s directives. At the end of the summer, back in the Marj el-Khokh camp in southern Lebanon, a dozen dusty, shoeless children aged between three and five are sitting on the ground in a white tent with UNICEF written in big letters at the entrance. They are colouring sheets with Arabic numerals. Others are learning the colours in Arabic and English. “We give them the basics, so that they are prepared when they go to the Lebanese schools: a bit of language, a bit of discipline, a bit about their rights,” says Maya Assaf, AVSI’s Education Assistant for the Marjayoun area. In the nearby camp at Sarada, Rafaa, aged 33, is only sending her eight-year-old son to school. Her two daughters, aged 14 and 16, work with her, picking fruit. Her husband cannot work because of an accident he had in Syria before the war and it is therefore the women who bring a bit of money home. If UNICEF and Caritas did not think of paying the transport to school, she would not be able to send her son there. He has been attending for three years now.

“One of the most significant challenges that the Syrian conflict is posing is that of providing the children with an education,” a recent study from Saint-Joseph University in Beirut has stated. “Because of the fact that Lebanon is a fragile state and its infrastructures have not completely recovered after decades of conflict, these regional tensions are creating political and demographic pressures and are continuing to have an impact on the state’s governance and its reform agenda. Hosting a growing number of refugees could constitute a destabilizing factor for the country’s political and religious composition,” write the researchers, who note that the government’s official position is clear: Lebanon is not a definitive destination for Syrian displaced persons.

The refugees must go back to Syria, even before the conflict ends: those who are on the regime’s side can return to the pro-regime areas and those who support the opposition can go to the opposition’s territories. The international community must push for the creation of secure buffer zones,” says the Labour Minister, Sejaan Azzi. He is sitting in his large office at the heart of Beirut’s commercial centre, Solidere (so named after the company founded by the ex-Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri, who planned the reconstruction of the neighbourhood devastated by the civil war). The minister will not alter his standpoint: he will not issue work permits to the Syrians who keep arriving. Without residence and work permits, as the HRW report notes, the economic repercussions for the generation of Syrians without an education remain serious. “We do not need a work force, it is the labour market that decides that,” says the minister. “I will not let them push Lebanon over the edge. I want to preserve the country for the Lebanese people. In the beginning, it’s true, there were refugees coming from Syria and we couldn’t offer them refuge. But since 2014 they aren’t refugees any more. It’s become an economic immigration: for school, housing, lifestyle… There is a settling within Lebanese society that is to Lebanon’s detriment.” According to the minister – a Maronite Christian who has spent a lifetime as an active member of the Phalange party, Kataeb – the Lebanon that was the country of Islamic-Christian co-existence would be disappearing. He fears that the flow of (prevalently Sunni Muslim) refugees may upset Lebanon’s fragile equilibrium: “Co-existence needs a certain balance and the percentage of Christians is decreasing. This is the only country in the whole of the Middle East where there is still a church and a cross.”


Rebuilding the CountryIMG_0554.JPG

Ali would like to return to Syria as soon as possible. He is 23 and comes from Kobani, a little Kurdish town on the border with Turkey that became famous after a long battle between local forces and Islamic State jihadists who were driven back in 2014. Ali is studying law at the Lebanese University, thanks to a study grant that he got through Terres des Hommes Italy, and he is working with the NGO on a study-support programme for Syrian children who have been placed in local state schools. Once a week, his little flat on the third floor of an old and dilapidated building in the working-class neighbourhood of Burj al-Hammoud (traditionally a Christian area in Beirut) fills with pupils from the nearby schools. Aged between seven and eleven, they arrive with their satchels and coloured exercise books and sit down on dusty sofas, amongst Ali’s guitar and textbooks. He patiently corrects their homework, helps them and answers their questions. He wants these children to be able to go to university like him, to receive an education and not stay out on the street. “They must go to university, so that they can return to Syria and rebuild not just the country’s future but also their own future and that of their children.” Ali dreams of returning to Syria and founding a NGO dedicated to making education accessible to everyone.

According to the World Bank, if a refugee has never gone to school by the time he/she is ten, it is highly probable that he/she never will. The level of illiteracy in the generation hit by the Syrian conflict is increasing, says Suha Tutunji, who works for the al-Jusoor organization, a Syrian NGO that is active in the Beqaa Valley area, where the majority of Syrian refugees are concentrated. “The more illiterate they are, the more prone to violence, crime, psychological problems and radicalization they will be. This is the generation that must go back to Syria and rebuild.” She is sitting in a classroom in a school in the village of Joub Jannine, in the Beqaa Valley. Her students are not children or young adolescents but adults who are taking part in a training programme: to become teachers here and be able to be teachers also in Syria one day, after the war. One girl is holding a cardboard cloud, another an image of the sun and another is blowing hard and laughing (she is the wind). A colleague throws a bit of water from a little bottle before someone dressed in green comes out from under a piece of brown cardboard (the earth): an amusing little scene to explain to children how plants grow.

A few kilometres away at Saadnayel, a little town with 15,000 inhabitants and 30,000 refugees in the neighbouring tent camps, it is market day. The market has only existed since the Syrians arrived and it attracts thousands of people from all over the area of the camps in west Beqaa. Hanan is 21 and graduated in Lebanon in Arabic literature. She, too, has come from Syria, fleeing from the war. She lives in a tent between the camps and has to pay $50 a month to the landowner. Someone has planted tall red flowers that look like lilies at the entrance to her tent. All by herself, the girl began to teach the children from the area to read and write but then she stopped. “It doesn’t make any difference. Many of them don’t even know how to write their name to get themselves recognised if they get lost in the camp. There is no real education system in the schools around us. There’s no future any more,” she says. This pessimism is shared, both amongst the refugees in the camps and the analysts on their podiums. “Some of these children will return to Syria taking a new vision with them,” says Carole Alsharabati, author of the Saint Joseph University study, “but others will just be sacrificed: they are a sacrificed generation.”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

To cite this article

Printed version:
Rolla Scolari, “The Lost Generation”, Oasis, year XII, n. 24, December 2016, pp. 114-127.

Online version:
Rolla Scolari, “The Lost Generation”, Oasis [online], published on 15th March 2017, URL: