Beirut, 31 May 2016 – Each morning, 150 refugee children file in and out of the Jesuit Refugee Service Frans van der Lugt (JRS FVDL) remedial and early childhood educational centre in the busy Bourj Hammoud neighbourhood of Beirut, with another 150 arriving in the afternoon. The idea is to provide extra support to refugee children registered in Lebanese public schools. But in the public school system, Syrian children still find themselves facing many barriers – first and foremost: xenophobia.
Closing space. One out of four people residing in Lebanon's borders are Syrian refugees. While the country has opened its borders to hundreds of thousands, space in the informal labour market, housing developments and especially the education system is quickly closing. Syrians, out of desperation, often take jobs for less pay than Lebanese will, creating tensions due to competition in the job market. There is simply a lack of resources, such as electricity and infrastructure to accommodate so many Syrians. Similarly, seats in schools are limited.
After living through years of conflict, many refugee children have missed out on years of education, or never even had the opportunity to start. In the Middle East, approximately 3.3 million Syrian children are out of school, and risk becoming a 'lost generation.' Last year, the Ministry of Education and High Education in Lebanon committed to providing 470,000 Syrian and vulnerable at-risk Lebanese children with access to education by the end of 2015.
Though it did not reach its target, the government's Reach All Students with Education (RACE) programme, in partnership with the UN and other NGOs, successfully doubled the number of students enrolled in public schools – more than 150,000 refugee and nearly 200,000 Lebanese children in formal schools, plus more than 9,700 in Accelerated Learning Programmes designed to help students who have been out of school two years or longer to catch up. The RACE programme created space for the extra students by creating a second shift at over 200 Lebanese public schools.
While the Lebanese government's commitment to refugee education is a welcome initiative, because most of the added Syrian children are not placed in the classrooms with Lebanese children, it does little in the way of integration.
"In many ways, the situation for Syrians (in regards to education) in Lebanon is improving even from last year, with so many children receiving education in government programmes, but because it's only refugees in the second shift schools, integration is not taking place," Fr Ángel Benítez-Donoso SJ, Vice Principal and School Administrator at the JRS FVDL centre explained.
Discrimination. Many Syrian children feel they cannot attend these public schools, because they face discrimination by local Lebanese teachers, students and parents. Syrian parents recount Lebanese teachers yelling at, embarrassing or even hitting their children at school, simply for being Syrian.
"If a Lebanese child gets slapped, a parent might come and make a fuss about it. If a Syrian child gets slapped, no one would make any deal of it," one mother, Rima Ahmadi*, told the JRS Home Visits team.
Staff at the JRS educational centres in Lebanon confirmed that these accounts of discrimination are sadly true, though the ministry of education is taking some actions where cases are reported.
"Last term we had – on several occasions – neighbours throw water from their windows on to our centre grounds, angry that we are giving free educational services to Syrians," Fr Benítez recalled.
Prevailing tensions. Roy Gebrayel, JRS Middle East and North Africa Education Officer, explained that the reasons for this xenophobia are both new and deep-seated tensions, but above all, complex.
"There was a heavy Syrian political and security presence intervening in Lebanon until 2005, and many Lebanese people only remember that presence of Syrians. They do not differentiate to see that the people entering the country now are civilians in need of protection and education," he explained.
"It is a problem of the history between Syria and Lebanon. Many teachers remember old wounds, and express that prejudice through the Syrian students. It's a matter of nationality," said Fr Benítez. "Similarly, many Lebanese students will hear at home, 'Syrians are thieves; they're dangerous; you need to beware of Syrians.'"
Furthermore, many of the Syrians in Lebanon come from poorer Syrian communities and/or a more conservative Muslim background than is the norm in Lebanon; many Lebanese feel that there is an unwanted cultural shift taking place.
"The prejudices we see are often Lebanese Christians against Syrian Sunni Muslims, as they were the ones who historically intervened in Lebanon," Fr Benítez continued.
"For all of these reasons, many Lebanese feel superior Syrians and see them as 'lesser,'" Gebrayel said.
Long-term solutions. The JRS centres in Lebanon try to create space for learning where all are welcome, offering remedial and English language classes for Syrian refugee children who have been out of school. These six-month programmes are designed to provide additional support for Syrian children in the Lebanese public school system, which is in English or French as opposed to the Syrian system which uses Arabic. Furthermore JRS offers Non-Formal Early Childhood Education for preschool aged children to prepare them to enter into Lebanese primary schools.
The JRS staff, comprising half Lebanese and half Syrian volunteer teachers, both male and female, Christian and Muslim, models diversity and the possibility of living together peacefully.
"We don't serve Christians or Muslims. We just serve humans. I can't think of any other organisation in Lebanon or Syria besides JRS that doesn't cater to a specific religion," say Hassan Aoun* of the JRS Home Visits team.
"In the Lebanese schools, we often feel like animals. Here feel like human beings," Rima said, who says she wants her children to remain in the JRS centres.
However, integrating Syrian children into the public school system is crucial to ensure they can receive education in the long-term. As Syria becomes more and more unstable by the day, returning home in the near future is out of the question for most Syrians. In order for their education to be societally recognised, children need to obtain an educational certificate, which can only be granted by public schools. For this reason, JRS supports Syrian children academically and psychologically so they can succeed in public schools.
All of the children enrolled in the JRS FVDL centre are currently enrolled in the public school system. Unfortunately, due to a discrimination and other societal barriers, many dropout. Still, JRS encourages the students and their parents to take this route regardless.
"While our transitional programmes are necessary to help children get back on their feet, here, the students have a limited curriculum. They need to move on, to open a horizon of possibilities. In the Lebanese schools, life can become a bit more normal," Fr Benítez said.
As the Syrian war enters its sixth year, it is important to ensure that displaced Syrian children do not become a lost generation. Majed Mardini, a teacher at the JRS centre in Jbeil said it well. "We always tell the children they need to be educated because, they are the ones who will rebuild Syria."
--Jacquelyn Pavilon, JRS International Communications Coordinator
*This name has been changed.