Education for Syrian refugee children: How we’re avoiding a “lost generation”

August 11, 2022
Written by Olivia Giovetti

More than half a million Syrian refugee children have missed out on years of precious education. Here’s how we’re working with students, teachers, and families to get them back in the classroom.

Over the last decade (and then some), it’s become increasingly recognized that education is urgently needed to prevent Syrian refugee children from becoming a “lost generation.” However, in two of the largest host communities for Syrians, there are many barriers to education

According to the UNHCR, more than half of the 488,000 school-aged Syrian children in Lebanon are not in the classroom. As of the 2020-21 academic year, over 35% of the 1.1 million Syrian children in Türkiye are out of school. Many have missed out on four or more years of education. UNICEF has estimated that an additional 80,000 teachers are needed to close this gap. 

Syrian refugee Ayham* 28, points at the number 4, written in Arabic, on the blackboard as a student counts from 1 to 5, during a non-formal education program in Akkar, northern Lebanon. (Photographer: Dalia Khamissy)

Why education for refugees matters

Education often slips down the list of priorities for refugees who are faced with other critical needs like basic shelter and clean water. However, studies have shown that education is critical for addressing the psychosocial impacts of war and normalizing life during and after an emergency (such as the protracted crisis in Syria, which has disrupted “normal” for nearly 12 years).

There are a few other key reasons that education is so important, especially for refugees. According to UNESCO, if all students in low-income countries had just basic reading skills (nothing else), an estimated 171 million people could escape extreme poverty. If all adults completed secondary education, we could cut the global poverty rate by more than half. 

Learn more about the issues that matter

With over 80% of Syrians now living below the poverty line and a long road to recovery when the war ultimately ends, education will be one of the country’s greatest assets for rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and maintaining peace. Education is also known to decrease risks that many refugee families can face, including:

  • Teenage pregnancy and maternal mortality rates
  • Vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change
  • Vulnerability to public health crises (such as HIV/AIDS)
  • Domestic and intimate partner violence rates

Back to school is easier said than done

Going back to school gives youngsters a sense of routine, the chance to play with others, and the opportunity to just be kids. Still, that can be a challenge for children who have experienced the horrors of war. Syrian teacher Abdul Hussain*, who works at a temporary education center (TEC) in Türkiye, says most of the Syrian children attending have some kind of psychological problems because of what they’d been through back home.

“You always feel that children are somehow absent, and lack attention, like something is missing. Any unusual loud sound they hear, which they think is a bullet or a bombing, they start screaming and show a very unusual fear… you have to realize, they are still young children.”

This is why education for refugee children is an even more delicate endeavor. While any good teacher has some grounding in psychology, teachers for refugee communities need to understand the effects of PTSD and be able to adjust their approaches accordingly. Learning loss is also a huge issue for young Syrian children. Many have missed years of education as a result of ongoing conflict. They have also faced considerable upheaval and turmoil in their young lives. For the youngest generation born into conflict and displacement, they have also missed out on the critical fundamentals of literacy and numeracy.

Mustafa*, who initially balanced his studies with a job bussing café tables, took part in Concern’s ECHO-funded Children of Peace programme supporting education for refugees in Türkiye. (Photo: Fionnagh Nally / Concern Worldwide)

Other barriers to education for Syrian refugee children

Beyond the psychological considerations, a few other hurdles remain between refugee children and the education they deserve: 

  • Language barriers (even Arabic has several different dialects depending on which country you’re in)
  • Costs, including school supplies, uniforms, and transportation
  • Overcrowding in classrooms and limited opportunities in certain areas
  • Other financial constraints that force children to join the workforce and support their family

That final point is one we’ve seen often at Concern over the last nine years of our work in Syria, Türkiye, and Lebanon. Some students spend hours before and after school working to earn money for their families, a dual existence that forces them to grow up very quickly. Too quickly, in fact.

When we met Mustafa* in 2015, neither of his parents were able to work. His father had cardiac problems and his mother suffered severe asthma. So Mustafa, along with his older siblings, took on the responsibility of supporting his family, cleaning tables and washing dishes in a café every day from 10am to midnight. The $5 per day he earned went to his family’s rent. Even during the school year, he was constantly between the classroom and the café. 

Yet Mustafa was still lucky, relatively speaking: Despite the grueling hours and workload, he was still attending school in between shifts. Many children opt out of education (or are opted out by their parents) all together. This alarms Syrian teacher Farah*: “If children don’t go to school, we are going to have a very bad future with a lost generation.”

Syrian teacher

Farah*, a Syrian teacher living in displacement in Türkiye and receiving classroom support from Concern. “If the situation remains the same, and kids don’t go to school, we are going to have a very bad future with a lost generation,” she says. (Photo: Caroline Gluck / Concern Worldwide)

Educating Syrian children in Lebanon…

For many months, all of Neda’s* thoughts were of war. As an 11-year-old refugee living with her mother and younger brother in northern Lebanon, her days were a patchwork of competing emptiness, loss, sorrow, and fears about her father, imprisoned in Syria. 

Concern Worldwide began an informal education program in Lebanon, gathering children in tents, offering them the chance to learn, read, write, draw, and — most important — to laugh. Now Neda wakes up early, lives for her schoolwork and dreams of becoming a doctor. Her mother, 32-year-old Ameera*, is more circumspect, knowing her children will face many barriers on the way to a professional career: “I can’t help but worry that she will be disappointed,” says Ameera as she offers guests bread with oil and za’atar. “At the same time, I’m so glad she has dreams. All we know about my husband is rumors, and my children miss him.”

In Lebanon, the government opened public schools to Syrian children, but language barriers, overcrowding, and the cost of transportation keep many refugee children out of school. Concern began responding in Lebanon in 2013, and supported the education of over 1,850 students in 25 learning spaces, as well as the career training for Lebanese and Syrian facilitators to help teach the children. Additionally, Concern was selected by UNICEF to run a homework support program that includes 2,550 students, both Lebanese and Syrian, in 12 learning spaces, including three public schools.

A young Syrian boy, studying both Arabic and Roman alphabets.

A young Syrian boy studies both Arabic and Roman alphabets at a Concern-supported education facility in Lebanon.

…while also supporting Syrian teachers

It is not only the children but also the facilitators who gained from this work. Aya*, 25, always dreamed of being a teacher. But when she married at age 19 and had her first child soon after, her dreams seemed unlikely. She was a mother of two when the Syrian conflict engulfed her neighborhood.

First her father was imprisoned. Then, “two bombs hit the house next door, killing all the children inside,” she said. Death at her doorstep was the last straw, and she picked up her toddler and infant and ran. “We got on a bus with others who were fleeing. The driver drove fast, like a crazy man, but it still took us all day to travel 60 kilometers [approx 35 miles].”

Through the Concern informal education program, Aya received training as a teacher. She now leads classes in art and Arabic. The tent that is Aya’s makeshift classroom shakes noisily in the wind. It can get bitterly cold in the winter and blazingly hot in the summer. The children lean over slapdash desks that are sometimes wobbly. But, to Aya, the good outweighs the bad.

“Outside of school, these kids are still struggling, still talking a lot about the war, and about wanting to return home and fight. But during class time, all they think about is their education,” she says. “This makes their parents happy as well. Yesterday, I got a note from the mother of one of my students, thanking me for what I am doing.”

“Outside of school, these kids are still struggling, still talking a lot about the war, and about wanting to return home and fight. But during class time, all they think about is their education.” — Aya*, Syrian teacher living in Lebanon

Educating Syrian children in Türkiye

In 2016, after three years of working in Türkiye, it became evident that only 15% of 8- and 9-year-old Syrian students could read. Their key years for developing this skill would have coincided with the start of the war. 

Concern had also observed a wide disparity in reading performance. At first glance, this might have painted a grim picture for the future of Syrian refugee children living in Türkiye. However, there was also reason for optimism. Despite the trauma and unprecedented level of school interruption experienced by students, their results could improve. 

This is where Temporary Education Centers come in.

Initiated and run by the Turkish government, these schools were developed to increase quality education in the short-term for Syrian refugees through the provision of supplies and a safe learning environment. Many of the teaching staff are also Syrian refugees, enabling them to support both children from their community as well as their own families. 

Teacher Hadice* works with 10-year-old Rania* to strengthen her Turkish skills in an Education Support Center run by Concern’s local partner in Malatya Province. (Photo: Concern Worldwide.)

In Türkiye: Supporting teachers to support their classrooms

Adnan* is one such teacher, who worked for 26 years in his hometown in Syria until the conflict forced him to flee to Türkiye with his wife and three young children. Now, he teaches music and philosophy in a Concern-supported TEC in south-eastern Türkiye, funded by the European Commission Children of Peace initiative. In addition to Adnan’s salary, this funding also provides teaching and learning materials, infrastructure repairs, and teaching support.

The trauma of conflict and displacement, combined with students’ extended periods of absence from school, has had a significant effect on the emotional wellbeing of the children. Adnan notes that aggressive behavior is regularly visible in the classroom, highlighting a need for increased psychosocial support. “My main concern is that my children and all Syrian children can have access to school,” he says. Inside the classroom, with help from Concern’s Teacher Mentors, teachers like Adnan have developed techniques to manage the challenging behavior presented by some of their students. Mentors visit classrooms to discuss challenges and solutions, as well as coach teachers in improved practice. 

“My main concern is that my children and all Syrian children can have access to school.”— Adnan, Syrian teacher living in Türkiye

Education for Syrian refugee children: Concern’s response

In 2021, Concern’s Education program helped over 3,100 school-aged Syrian boys and girls to enter the formal education system. Our support for school enrolment is complemented by social cohesion activities that bring Turkish and Syrian children together and psychosocial support that builds children’s resilience, confidence and sense of self-worth as they enter the Turkish formal education system. In Türkiye, we work in collaboration with the Turkish Ministry of National Education and local partners to alleviate financial constraints on families, as well as other barriers to education, so that Syrian children can access quality education that supports their learning, development and wellbeing. 

One program, Building Tomorrow, integrated emergency responses providing education and livelihood support for Syrians under temporary protection in four provinces in southeast Türkiye. Last year, we reached over 13,500 people. The education element of this program has been implemented at 30 public education centers (PECs) and 20 vocational and technical high schools (TVETs). Since language barriers impede progress, the program provides Turkish language classes to 12,000 children at PECs, ages 6-13. It also seeks to improve access to formal educational opportunities for school-aged Syrians under temporary protection through outreach, learning support, and the provision of learning and psychosocial support materials.

Our education programs extend into Syria as well. In northeast Syria, we give out-of-school and conflict-affected children access to quality primary-level education, providing support in both non-formal education centers and formal schools. Last year, this effort reached nearly 6,000 students. Despite the challenges posed by COVID-19, we were still able to expand our program in 2020 and 2021, opening two new non-formal education centers (bringing the total to six), rehabilitating seven primary schools, and beginning our first homework support component in formal schools to help support pupil retention.

*Names have been changed for security purposes