Providing Education for Refugees in Lebanon

A crowd of refugees. A young girl around the age of six holds a sign that reads, "SOS."

Photo credit: Alexandre Rotenberg / Shutterstock

Lebanon is a small country in the tense area between Palestine and Syria. It’s about twice the size of Long Island, NY, and one of the smallest non-island countries in the world.

It’s also host to over one million registered refugees from Syria, according to a 2016 report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They assume this to be low of the actual number, due to constant arrivals, a slow registration process, and an overwhelmed infrastructure. Their estimate of the actual number is closer to a million and a half. That would mean that more than one in five people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. And many of them are children.

Being a refugee is intensely disruptive to the life of a child. Many children that flee their home country never enter education again. Right now, over 200,000 Syrian children in Lebanon aren’t enrolled in school.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice, founded in 2016 by Amal and George Clooney, has partnered with international aid giant UNICEF to work on this issue. The foundation is donating $2.25 million dollars to seven public schools in Lebanon.

There’s already a system in Lebanon for providing education to refugees; schools operate in shifts, teaching local students in the morning, then refugees in the afternoons, doubling their capacity. The Clooney’s grant, boosted by a further $1 million from HP for educational technology, will add those seven schools to the pool that can extend their resources.

“Thousands of young Syrian refugees are at risk—the risk of never being a productive part of society,” the Clooneys said in press release on Monday, July 31st. “Formal education can help change that. That’s our goal with this initiative. We don’t want to lose an entire generation because they had the bad luck of being born in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

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Syrian Refugee Children #ImagineASchool

A picture of refugee children from Syria.

Photo credit: huseyin ozdemir1 / Shutterstock

The Syrian crisis has caused untold damage to not only Syria, but to many of the surrounding countries. Many of the refugees fleeing the war zone into the neighboring country of Lebanon are children. And while their lives may be in less immediate danger outside of Syria, their futures remain uncertain.

That’s due in large part to the fact that 187,000 of those children—almost half of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon—are not going to school. Instead, they’re being pushed into manual labor or marriage to help financially support their struggling families.

“Poverty, social exclusion, insecurity, and language barriers are preventing Syrian children from getting an education, leaving an entire generation disadvantaged, impoverished, and at risk of being pushed into early marriage and child labor,” said UNICEF Lebanon Representative Tanya Chapuisat in an interview with Reuters.

In response, UNICEF has come up with an original idea to spread the word about the importance of education for these Syrian refugee children.

UNICEF’s #ImagineASchool project is an interactive online documentary website that allows visitors to watch and listen to interviews with Syrian children about their desire to attend school. Filmed during the summer of 2016, the #ImagineASchool project involved gathering more than 80 children together for traditional class photos. Each class was photographed twice: once with all the children, and once with just the children in that group who were actively attending school.

The results were shocking. Whereas each individual class might contain 8-12 students, the number actually going to school was about half that for each class.

“You risk losing an entire generation,” lamented Chapuisat in the documentary footage. “A generation that will not achieve their potential, a generation that won’t be able to contribute to society. A generation that won’t be able to educate their children in the same way going forward.”

The photographers and filmographers noticed a distinct difference between the children they interviewed who had been to school and those who hadn’t. Children without systematic education had trouble telling a cohesive narrative and answering questions. Those who attended school did not.

UNICEF is working hard to create more opportunities for these students. The organization is present in 1,300 schools and 2,000 informal tent settlements in Lebanon. In 2015-2016, UNICEF and Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education supported about 150,000 Syrian refugee children and about 197,000 Lebanese children in enrolling and staying in school. UNICEF covers all associated educational fees as well as providing learning materials, enrollment support, school transport, school uniforms, bags, and school supplies.

Their work isn’t just about providing education, though. It’s also about keeping these refugee children away from dangerous physical labor and early marriage, both of which can detract from a child’s ability to flourish in adulthood. With refugees already at a disadvantage due to the language barrier (many Syrian children grew up learning Arabic, while schools in Lebanon generally teach in French and English), it’s vital that these children be given every opportunity to learn and adapt to their new homes.

Nearly half a million Syrian children between the ages of 3 and 17 now live in Lebanon. According to UNICEF, all 1,283 Lebanese schools have opened their doors to refugees, who only need to show an ID to be enrolled. But they will also need the support of organizations like UNICEF to overcome the stigma of being poor refugees and to be able to build a better life for themselves and their families.