Syrian Child Refugees

A three-month hiatus? Summer vacation at 27? Nope, but apologies all around.

These next two posts, the last to be labelled ‘a la Cardiff’ are excerpts from my dissertation. These two features are emblematic of the research I committed myself to over the summer, the people I met and the stories they entrusted to me.


Syrian child refugees and the threat of a lost generation

They were all under 17, but they already knew change was a must for Syria.

Spray paint was their weapon of choice, their slogan “THE PEOPLE WANT THE REGIME TO FALL.”

The teenagers of Dara’a who painted graffiti on village walls were the first to stand up to the ruthless President Bashar al Assad. Their actions and voices, those of young people, sparked the nation-wide revolt still smouldering four years on.

Prior to 2011 almost 95 per cent of school-aged children living inside Syria were literate. Today those children account for half of all Syrian refugees. Two million youth are sheltering in neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey waiting to return.

Of the two million living in camps and squalid urban areas, half do not have access to proper education, their once-bright futures shattered.

Issa Farfour was one of those children whose education was cut short when the revolution erupted.

Now 24 years old, Issa was born and raised outside Aleppo and is one of six siblings. He comes from a middle class family that understands the value of education, his closest brothers and sisters were also pursuing higher education at the time of the revolution.

As a young boy he enjoyed listening to music and dreaming of travel to the UK.

He even wrote in his schoolbooks, “United Kingdom, my country of big dreams.”

Issa first left home when he enrolled in university in 2009. Studying journalism in Damascus Issa was surrounded by politics; a contained politics, practised in a vacuum dominated by the dictatorial rule of Assad.

The Farfour family was not prosperous enough to completely fund Issa’s education. So, like millions of other students, Issa worked two jobs to afford his studies. His nights were occupied by the third shift, 7pm to 5am, as a valet at the Sheraton Hotel and two days a week he wrote for the Damascus office of al Waseela, an Arabic language newspaper.

Issa did not write political content, he stuck to advertisements. “Because it’s not democracy you can’t write anything. If you love them you can write, if you hate them you can’t write,” he said of the government-enforced censorship.

Often Issa and his friends would discuss the state of affairs in Syria, disagreeing with the brutality and total control of the Assad regime, but they would never act on their opinions.

Other students were not as prudent. Issa remembers the night when everything changed. When Damascus turned upside down.

“Some students went to the street to write and say something to government. No guns, no anything, just saying, just writing,” he said

The police were quick to label the protest as part of the resistance and violently subdued the youths.

Issa did not join in; he needed to study for an exam the next day. He first noticed the cacophony of the protesters and police from where he was studying in the garden.

“When I see this problem will be big, I went to my room and stay in my room, but the electric was cut,” he said.

Now, completely in the dark, Issa phoned his brother to tell him what happened and that he was safe.

As his phone lit up, the only light source in the room, four or five police officers barged in, breaking down the door. They wore plain clothes and Issa did not know if they were mafia or police.

They accused him of being part of the resistance, of using his phone to videotape them and uploading the footage to YouTube. The men beat Issa, confiscated his ID and took him to the basement of a university building with a number of other students.

Three or four hours later the men returned the IDs and told the students to go home. Issa later discovered he had been held in an international student’s building outside the jurisdiction of his captors.

After that night the mood in Damascus shifted. “All my friends left. I remember maybe 5,000 students in this area, after problem I think 100,” he said.

Initially Issa stayed because he wanted to continue his studies. Each day Issa spent in Damascus, still a government stronghold, his anti-Assad feelings grew stronger.

“I start to hate the government more because I didn’t do anything. I didn’t write about government, I didn’t say anything about government. Why? Why they hit me?” he recalled angrily.

One Friday, not too long after the night he was detained, Issa was working at al Waseela when a bomb dropped by the Assad regime exploded on the street below. It was the first bomb of the revolution.

That was the day Issa decided to leave Syria.

Since then Issa has travelled through half a dozen countries in order to claim asylum in the UK and finish his education. Fifteen years after he first dreamt of the UK, Issa has received his residence permit, allowing him to remain in the country for up to five years, and is enrolled in English classes.

He hopes one day to be rid of his memories of the violence in Syria. “When I say I am from Syria the bad story comes to mind. If I want to forget this bad story I have to never remember Syria,” he said.

“I don’t want to be rich or famous man. I just want to live in peace far from the war, blood and killing. The war that destroyed everything beautiful in my life,” he added.

“I want to start from zero,” he said putting his face in his hands.

Not all the young people of Syria are as lucky as Issa.

Those lucky enough to flee with their parents and seek refuge in neighbouring countries are facing a long-term uphill battle to enrol in local schools.

As of June 2015 there were 2,032,420 child refugees from Syria living in Iraq (103,636), Jordan (325,259), Lebanon (625,077) and Turkey (978,448). Just over half the registered refugee population residing in surrounding nations are children under the age of the 18.

Save the Children has called the education provided to Syrian refugee children by host nations “patchy and insufficient”. For most children living as refugees, whether they are in camps or urban areas, full-time education is a luxury, it says.

Dawn Chatty, director of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, said despite the United Nation’s best efforts the lives of these children has been irreparably upended.

“Imagine someone at the age of 12 being pulled out of school, unable to enter again either because the facilities aren’t there or they’re not registered for assistance. Without education they’re lost. It’s a lost generation that’s emerging that has no future,” she said.

Dr Chatty explained the crucial point in a Middle Eastern student’s education is often a cumulative exam, the equivalent of the AS levels. “Everything up to then is just preparing them to pass these exams,” she said.

However, the interruption caused by the revolution has thrown millions of Syrian students off their course of study. After a, sometimes, four-year hiatus Syrian children are unequipped to sit for such arduous exams, let alone pass them.

Even where children are still inside Syria school enrollment is low – just six per cent in Aleppo, for example – and 20 per cent of schools nationwide have been destroyed, damaged or repurposed.

Refugee children, the vast majority of Syrian youth, are no longer enrolled in the Syrian school system and the few who can find a school in their country of refuge must adapt to the curriculum of that nation.

Considered second-class, lower priority students, Syrian children can suffer severe discrimination.

In Jordan Save the Children has documented numerous incidents of abuse as “an acceptable disciplinary practice” against Syrian children acting up in the classroom.

The social tension has spread beyond the classroom. More than half of Lebanese adults, and three out of four Jordanians, polled in a Save the Children survey said they did not want their governments to take in any more Syrians.

Jordan, a nation already struggling to educate its own population, has reintroduced second shift schooling to accommodate the growing number of students. Most second shift schools provide a mere two hours of schooling to children a day, often in a foreign language and an unfamiliar, non-Syrian curriculum.

“That’s not a full school day nor are they being taught a curriculum for which they can sit an exam to get a degree after all of this,” explained Dr Chatty.

Unfortunately, Dr Chatty explained, Jordanian officials are allocating UN funding to improve schools for the native population before aiding Syrian refugees.

“As they see it they’ve only just stopped having second shifts school for their own students in the 1990s and they don’t want to go back,” she said. It will be another year before refugee schools are built, she added.

Second shift schooling is also enforced in Lebanese classrooms, but at a painstakingly slow pace while 80 per cent of Syrian children in Lebanon remain out of school.

“These half-baked, second shift schools are not really schools. They’re not helping the situation at all,” said Dr Chatty.

She equated host nation’s education policies to that practised in the southern United States during the first half of the 20th century.

“You create segregation and discrimination like in the United States when there were schools for black people and schools for white Americans. When you have separate schools for refugees in your country you create a very dangerous, very volatile situation,” she said.

Turkey, the only nation to have shouldered the financial burden of hosting Syrian refugees from its own budget, are moving towards teaching the Syrian curriculum, albeit, “cleaned up of the Ba’ath party rhetoric,” said Dr Chatty.

The biggest problem is the interruption in these children’s education that has no foreseeable end and whose consequences cannot yet be seen fully.

“Even if the fighting stopped in the next five, 10 years there won’t be a population that has the education to rebuild the country,” said Dr Chatty.

The onus falls on NGOs to supplement sparse curricula and shortened school days.

The Chicago-based charity, Karam Foundation, which in Arabic means generosity, works with schools on the Syria-Turkey border providing outlets for children to play, laugh and forget the horrors they have witnessed.

Kinda Hibrawi, director of education and creative director, agrees the worst crime perpetrated against Syrian child refugees is the interruption of their education.

“Time is of the essence. They’re losing out on a lot of school,” she said. Its weeklong workshops, which range from healthcare to yoga, origami to photography, supplement traditional curricula.

“In order to educate you first have to heal. You can’t have a child sitting in a classroom when he’s still traumatized by his escape in the middle of the night,” she said.

This is Hibrawi’s second year working with Syrian child refugees in Turkey and she has already completed five “missions” with the Karam Foundation. For Hibrawi this is no longer a simple job, she considers it her responsibility.

Born in Saudi Arabia to Syrian parents, Hibrawi visited family in Aleppo until she and her family moved there themselves when the Gulf War broke out in 1990.

Hibrawi became involved with refugee aid and the charity because she disagreed with the news coverage of her home country.

“I was really upset at the way the media portrayed Syrians. It was very violent, very bloody, I wanted people to see a different perspective,” she said.

The first and last time Karam Foundation was able to access children living inside Syria was summer of 2013 when staff visited a refugee camp a few kilometres across the Turkish border.

“The mass of it was traumatizing. It’s 30,000 Syrians in tents, 12,000 of whom are children. It’s very shocking to your system,” said Hibrawi.

Since 2013 the situation inside Syria has become too violent for Karam Foundation to access the camps. Missions now focus on urban refugee communities residing north of the Syria-Turkey border.

“We can still see the tents. We’re that close,” said Hibrawi.

Every six months Karam Foundation descends upon the region with new mentors and revitalised workshops. Hibrawi believes it is vital to return to the same schools so relationships continue to grow between the foundation, the children, the parents and the administrators.

“It also allows us to see growth and measure if the workshops are working or not,” she said.

A young boy named Omar embodies the importance of building these long-term relationships. Last year Omar refused to participate in a workshop where children were drawing their future homes. Defiant, he stood up and shouted, “I don’t want to draw, I just want to grow up really, really big and die,” recalled Hibrawi.

Six months later, moments after her arrival, Hibrawi remembers Omar approached her and wanted to show her his drawing. Sketched on the paper was Omar as a police officer, with a badge and car, standing in his garden.

“It was unbelievable, we were floored,” said Hibrawi.

It’s “absolute magic,” to see children like Omar overcome their anger and grief she said.

Youngsters like Omar and Issa have experienced atrocities no child should witness. They have been uprooted from their homes, their families split apart.

Providing a future for young Syrian refugees has to be broken down into short-term and long-term solutions.

For the moment making sure children benefit from schooling is the priority for international agencies.

Gregory Barrow, head of the London office of the World Food Programme (WFP) said imitation sweets are the incentive of choice.

He said: “[Younger] kids are receiving fortified date bars that help encourage them to stay in school.”

The bars are provided to children as part of the WFP’s School Feeding Programme currently operating, in partnership with Unicef, in the Zaatari and Azraq camps in Jordan as well as cities inside Syria including Aleppo and Hama.

“Around 15,000 students continue to receive food,” said Barrow of the WFP initiative inside Jordanian refugee camps.

Sheltering in a foreign place, far from home, the promise of a meal, and a sweetie, is a smart way to encourage traumatized children to continue to attend school. Smart, but not enough.

In the long-term Syrian child refugees face low salaries, unemployment and potential recruitment by armed groups if the quality of their education continues to fall.

In 2007 the World Bank measured Syria’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) at $40.41 billion (£25.69 billion). Save the Children calculated that if the current number of Syrian child refugees remain out of school it would cost the future Syrian economy £1.46 billion ($2.18 billion) in lost earnings.

Older generations must recognise a future for Syrians inside their country lays with the children. If they do not, in twenty years there will be no one with the qualifications to put the pieces of Syria back together.

Education can help Issa make a fresh start in the UK. Education is how Omar will one day become a police officer.

The very students of Dara’a who spray painted anti-Assad rhetoric could be the next leaders of Syria. But not unless they finish their education, the key to saving their lost generation.


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