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Syrian kids miss out on education

Carla Bleiker
September 15, 2016

UNICEF and other aid organizations are trying to help children go back to school. Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai has called on governments to do more, so that Syria will still have a future left when peace returns.

Syrian refugee children walk outside a tent being used as a school at a refugee camp. (Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Eid

The civil war in Syria has been raging for five years now and there is no end in sight. Among those who suffer from the violence and chaos the most are Syrian children. They are especially vulnerable. According to UNICEF, the United Nations' aid program for children, there are around 2.5 million children registered as refugees outside of Syria.

Many of them are living in camps in countries like Lebanon, Jordan or Egypt. They have lost everything and are traumatized by the death and violence they had to witness. International aid organizations are fighting for these children to have a future, and not to become a lost generation. One of the most important tools in this effort is education.

Ahead of the UN General Assembly meeting this week, Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai has called on the heads of governments across the world to guarantee 12 years of school for every refugee child.

"Education is crucial," Yousafzai told the Associated Press news agency. "I understand that, you understand that, people understand that, but when it comes to world leaders' decision-making, they completely ignore it, as if they have no knowledge and are completely ignorant."

Missing teachers, closed-down schools

On September 19, the UN will host its first summit on migrants and refugees. Yousafzai, who became the youngest Nobel laureate ever in 2014 for advocating the right to an education for all children, will not be attending the 71st session of the General Assembly. At the age of 19, she's focusing on her school work and college applications instead.

Students at a school in a Syrian refugee camp. (Photo: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Rassloff)
When they get a chance to go to school, many Syrian children are eager to learnImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Rassloff

But there are millions of children who don't have the chance to attend university or even go to secondary school. Aid organizations like UNICEF are working to provide as many children as possible with access to education. They deal with refugee children in Syria's neighboring countries, but also with kids who are still inside the war-ridden nation.

More than 700,000 Syrian refugee children in neighboring countries are not going to school even though they should be. Inside the country, the situation is even worse: One quarter of all schools are not used for educational purposes anymore, and 50,000 education professionals no longer work in their jobs - they fled the country, died or joined the fighting. That is why 2.1 million Syrian school children do not have the possibility to attend class.

"Half of Syria's school children aren't in school," Juliette Touma, communication chief for UNICEF's Middle East and North Africa office, told DW. "Some of them have never been in school; others have missed up to five years."

No Lost Generation

In 2016, UNICEF plans to give 854,000 Syrian refugee children in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey access to formal education. To that end, UNICEF is one of the organizations supporting the No Lost Generation initiative. Supported by different UN agencies, a variety of international and local NGOs, governments and private donors, the initiative aims to "provide opportunities for children and youth… to heal, learn and develop again."

"In the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, the second-biggest refugee camp in the world, we built nine schools from scratch," Touma said. "In other countries we expand learning space by renovating existing schools, adding more classrooms or installing heating."

A veiled teacher with her class of Syrian children at Zaatari refugee camp. (Photo: dpa - Bildfunk)
Class time at one of the nine schools UNICEF set up in the Zaatari refugee campImage: picture alliance / dpa

The initiative has also introduced the double-shift methodology in numerous schools, for example in Jordan. In the morning, Jordanian children will attend school, and in the afternoon, the classrooms are used to teach Syrian refugee children.

"We think outside the box to provide education," Touma said.

Girls' tough struggle

For refugee girls, the situation is especially precarious. They are even less likely to go to school than boys.

"Refugee girls are wondering how long they can stay out of school before they're forced into early marriages or child labor," Yousafzai said in a press statement. The Nobel Prize winner was shot in October 2012 for defying the Taliban in her home country, Pakistan, by going to school and advocating education for girls.

Today, her charity Malala Fund focuses on "helping girls go to school and raise their voices for the right to education." The fund's current social media campaign #YesAllGirls wants to draw attention to the plight of refugee girls.

UNICEF's Juliette Touma recounts the story of one girl in a Jordan refugee camp who convinced her parents to not marry her off and let her go to school instead. But Touma also says that the number of young girls getting married is rising, because their parents have lost everything and are so poor that they see no other option.

The No Lost Generation initiative is doing everything to fight this practice and to make sure that girls and boys get a chance to go to school.

"For UNICEF, education is as important as water and vaccinations because it nourishes a child's soul," Touma said. "School is really a safe haven - and also an investment in the future. Bear in mind that the war in Syria will eventually come to an end, hopefully sooner rather than later. We will need these children to rebuild the country."

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