Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Syria, 2 Million Children No Longer Attending School

syrian children
Syrian children play outside their destroyed school in Hama, on February 18, 2018. Photo AFP

Nearly 2 million Syrian children are no longer attending school, and a third of the country’s schools have been destroyed, damaged or are being used for military or other purposes such as shelters, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW)

Children in Eastern Ghouta are the most recent example of what the United Nations has described as a ‘crisis’. In March 2018, when the rebel-held region outside Damascus came under heavy attack from the Syrian army, schools were closed for safety reasons and informal schools were opened. However, these were bombed as well. In the last week of March, an air strike killed around 15 children and two adults who were sheltering in one of these schools.

Muhammad Nizar Arbash, a resident of the city of Douma, told ABC News, “The shelling that is not stopping at all and the lack of stability and lack of availability of internet and electricity, and what’s more than that, your fate, your unknown fate that you know nothing about – all these things make studying impossible.”

Under these conditions, it is hard to go to school or maintain safe access to education. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (UNOCHA) estimated that as of 17 September 2017, there were 319,000 teachers and education personnel as well as 5.77 million children between 5 and 17 in need of education assistance.

The first victims are girls, who are most likely to drop out of school for safety or financial reasons. While there is no gender breakdown of current enrollment in Syria, ‘girls are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of school’ in conflict zones, according to an UNESCO report published in June 2015.

A young woman called Wateen said that that Islamic State prevented girls in her town from going to schools. That, coupled with heavy bombings, forced her to travel to Turkey to pursue her education.

Local and international organizations have developed various ways to continue making education accessible. For example, Karam Foundation, a Chicago-based NGO, has collaborated with the Syrian NGO Taalim to rebuild schools that were damaged by barrel bombs and air strikes and supports underground schools.

“The education that we support in Syria is primarily primary school education and all over Syria but mostly in the northern part,” Lilah Khoja, Karam’s higher education program coordinator, told Fanack Chronicle.

She continued: “People want their kids to go to school. Whether they’re in Syria or they’ve been displaced to Turkey or Jordan, they want their kids to go to school. For parents, the biggest concern is the safety of their children at these schools. There have been too many attacks and air strikes on schools since 2011, and that rightfully causes some parents to wonder whether their children would be better off at home with their families. It’s in these situations that underground schools have been successful. Going to school is an act of normalcy. Education ensures that these children are able to be exactly that: children, in an environment that wants them to thrive and blossom.”

When the war broke out in 2011, an estimated 97 per cent of primary school-aged children were attending school, as were 67 per cent of secondary school-aged children, according to UNICEF. Literacy rates country-wide were high, at over 90 per cent for both men and women. Syria’s national investment in education had also been rising steadily. The government’s education budget increased from 15 per cent to 19 per cent of GDP between 2004 and 2009. Education was free of charge and obligatory until the ninth grade. As an Arab republic, the curriculum was strict and tended towards a very nationalistic ideology.

“The children had to learn a lot of things by heart, slogans, history moments, and were not encouraged to ask questions,” Monika Bolliger, a journalist who conducted research on Syrian history textbooks before the war, told Fanack Chronicle. “I remember a 14-year-old kid I knew had problems with his exam because he tried to answer in his own words instead of repeating word for word from the textbook. A lot of kids would make fun of the ideological slogans they were made to learn by heart. It didn’t really connect to their reality.”

There are around 2.5 million Syrian children displaced by the war living in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Host countries have taken steps to increase school enrollment, such as offering free public education and introducing ‘second shifts’ in the afternoons to accommodate more children. Yet barriers such as onerous documentation requirements, language difficulties and a lack of affordable transportation are continuing to keep children out of the classroom, according to HRW. Even the children who have reached Europe have not always had  a continuous access to a formal education.

Despite growing concerns about a ‘‘lost generation’, these children’s varied experiences as well as their experience of different countries and educational systems might in fact result in a new view of education and ways of learning, hopefully in safety, for generations to come.