Ghazele is 10 years old. She fled with her mother, father, sister and two brothers from Syria, crossing the border illegally in 2012. 17-year-old Heba was, too, compelled to abandon her home and taken to Za’atari, a refugee camp in Jordan. She said, according to “Education Interrupted,” a report published last week, “I used to have a dream, but it’s been blown away by the winds of this place. My dream was to go to university and study pharmacy. It was on my mind and in my heart, but it’s been reduced to ash.” These girls’ homes, families and educations are disfigured with the crisis of the Middle East, prolonged by more than 1,000 days of bloodshed thus far.
The perpetuated costs of conflict have wreaked the most havoc on Syria’s children, as more than five million young lives are at risk of becoming part of a lost generation. Since 2011 nearly three million children from Syria have been forced to give up their educations, according to the report.
The worst affected areas inside Syria include A-Raqqa, Idlib, Aleppo, Deir Ezzour, Hama, Dara’a and Rural Damascus—in some of which attendance rates have dropped to as low as six percent. Reason being, one in every five schools are out of commission, as they have been wracked by fierce violence or are sheltering internally displaced persons.
The Syrian conflict is now entering its fourth year of enduring economic privation and vast adversity, particularly for young girls who risk sexual violence due to forced internal displacement, family separation and a limited availability or safe access to services—all of which increase with the proliferation of small arms, and a growing number of armed groups.
Girls are thus displaced to neighboring countries, oftentimes fleeing Syria illegally, like Ghazele, and headed to “Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Egypt. Fear of sexual violence is commonly cited by refugees as one of the reasons for leaving” according to the Global Protection Cluster.
In those neighboring countries, however, different languages, dialects and curricula, limited or no learning spaces, poverty and community tensions are keeping children away from classes. According to “Education Interrupted,” in countries hosting Syrian refugees, between 500,000- 600,000 Syrian refugee children are out of school.
Before the crisis began in March 2011, according to “Education Interrupted,” an estimated 97 percent of primary-age children were attending school, as were 67 percent of secondary-age children. Literacy rates nation-wide were over 90 percent for both men and women.
“Education Interrupted” is the first paper that attempts to quantify the staggering decline in education in Syria, arguing that “even among the many challenges facing Syria’s children, ensuring their continued access to learning is an essential platform for protection, social stabilization and economic recovery, and one the world cannot ignore.” The publication presents four key recommendations to be undertaken by regional governments and their international partners to safeguard Syrian children’s fundamental right to quality education:
1. “Long-term planning for the education of displaced Syrian children: Regional governments and international partners must plan for a future which meets the education needs of Syrian refugee children over the long term. Host governments must be supported in the development and implementation of innovative education policies and models that reflect the presence of Syrian children as an enduring reality. This should include helping local and refugee children to learn comfortably together and exploring transferrable certification of schooling for refugee students.
2. Host countries must be supported and international investment doubled: Long-term solutions of the scale needed cannot be implemented at current levels of funding. International appeals for the Syria crisis this year are only 62 per cent funded, leaving a US$ 2.6 billion gap. Only 67 per cent of UNICEF’s 2013 appeal for education needs inside Syria and the sub-region have been met. International partners must support host governments’ efforts to expand and improve learning spaces, recruit additional teachers and slash the costs of getting children into the classroom – including transport, school materials and funds for extra teaching shifts. Investment is also needed in education for children with disabilities, and vocational training for older children – all of which will help children from host communities as well as refugee children.
3. Scale-up success and innovation: Some countries have adopted innovative ways to ensure more children resume their learning. Inside Syria, learning opportunities have helped children deal with the worst kinds of trauma. Children who have been able to listen, play and talk in hundreds of safe spaces set up across the country are better able to process their experiences and are more optimistic about their prospects. These friendly learning spaces are essential to reach the poorest and most vulnerable of Syria’s children. Meanwhile, a home-based self- learning programme is being developed. Non-formal learning centres in Lebanon have helped thousands of child labourers attend class after work. They are also helping those who have dropped out of school to get back into class. In Turkey, schools are being built inside the camps and in host communities where Syrian children are taught in Arabic, by Syrian volunteer teachers. In Jordan’s Zaatari camp, assembly points are organized where girls can meet a teacher and walk to school as a group to address parents’ concerns for their safety.
4. End the devastation of Syria’s education infrastructure: The collapse of Syria’s education system can only be halted by political commitment from parties to the conflict. The devastation inflicted on Syria’s schools must end; schools must not be used for military purposes, and should be declared ‘zones of peace’; parties to the conflict have a responsibility to enable safe access for school children– and those who violate international humanitarian law should be held accountable. Donors should also provide funds to enable monitoring and reporting of attacks on education.”
If the crisis is further ignored, according to “Education Interrupted,” the likely outcome will be a sharp rise in the proportion of uneducated youth. “Only immediate and concerted action can stop that from happening.”