A quiet tragedy is unfolding for the children of jordan’s refugee camps
For 14-year-old Omaymah Hoshan, a Syrian refugee, education remains a priority. The young girl attends a school for Syrian refugees in the Za’atari camp in the northern Mafraq governorate of Jordan. “I look forward to completing my studies and becoming a pediatrician one day,” she said. “An education is a girl’s weapon to a better future. It’s the only weapon that can secure her independence and future.”
As Europe struggles to handle the massive influx of Syrians fleeing their country’s civil war, another refugee crisis is quietly unfolding in the Middle East. But it is one that threatens the future of an entire generation of youth.
Almost five years into the Syrian conflict, as relief organizations consider the refugees’ long-term prospects, they are alarmed at the number of Syrian children who are not in school: over 2 million in Syria alone and 700,000 in Middle Eastern and North African countries hosting refugees, such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). All this in a region that had the goal of universal education well within reach before the Arab Spring uprisings began in 2010.
In a report titled “Education Under Fire,” released on Sept. 3, UNICEF said the problem was not limited to Syrian children in the Middle East and North Africa. In nine countries that are directly or indirectly affected by violence—Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Palestine, Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey—more than 13 million children are not attending school, the report said.
The report stressed that the failure to resolve an increasingly brutal conflict in Syria and other countries in the region is not only putting a strain on the education system but is making an entire generation vulnerable to child labor, child marriage and recruitment from militant groups.
Omaymah’s family left their hometown in Dera’a after fleeing the Syrian war in 2012. Since settling in Jordan, her parents have enrolled all five of their children in school.
Omaymah goes to school by foot, walking five minutes to the Khadijah Bint Khwailed School situated in the camp and run by Jordan’s Ministry of Education. Learning has its challenges in the camp. With frequent electricity cuts, children leave their caravans to play. As days go by, many lose interest in studying altogether.
Some of Omaymah’s friends are in class with her. But many others aren’t as lucky. The girls who either drop out or don’t secure a place at school end up at home helping with domestic chores. Others are married off.
“One of my friends who is 14 years of age is now engaged to be married,” said Omaymah. “Unschooled boys, on [the] other hand, find themselves a job and start to generate income for their families.”
Omaymah and her family have managed to build a small community in Za’atari camp. After finishing her homework, she cooks and cleans the house to help her mother, who has found a job with U.N. Women helping teach vocational work for women such as sewing and jewelry making. As soon as she is done, Omaymah meets her friends and neighbors for a walk and some play around the camp. In the evening, the family gathers around the TV and shares details of their day.
“If a child does not go to school, it will create great problems in the future,” said Hanan Oweimrin, a specialist on child psychology based in Jordan. “They will end up on the streets, or go back to Syria to die fighting, or be radicalized into extremists, or die in the ocean to reach Europe. Years without education and support to overcome their psychological trauma will mean the loss of skills and the understanding they will need as adults to play their part in the reshaping of their nation and the restoration of stability in the region.”
In Jordan, where the government’s ability to offer education for all its citizens is a point of pride, the number of Syrian students has put a considerable strain on the national education system, which already has 1.7 million Jordanian children in pre-primary, primary and secondary schools.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered about 633,000 refugees in Jordan as of mid-November, or about 9 percent of the country’s population of 6.7 million, but the number of registered refugees is much lower than the actual total. About 220,000 Syrian children are of school age, five to 18 years old, said Robert Jenkins, director of UNICEF Jordan.
So far this year, 143,000 Syrian children attend schools in Jordan, a 10 percent increase compared to the 130,000 enrolled last year, which is due to the efforts of the Ministry of Education with support from UNICEF, the European Union and others, to expand the education system. “However, the challenge remains that there is still about 77,000 children that are not in the formal public school system,” said Jenkins.
“In addition to the Syrian students already in our public schools studying the Jordanian curriculum, there are around 30,000 Syrian refugee students on our waiting lists,” said Mohammed Al Okoor, secretary general for education affairs at the ministry.
“We have already reached our capacity and are unable to welcome more.”
According to UNICEF, there are 11 schools in refugee camps for Syrians, and 98 double-shift public schools managed by the Ministry of Education to accommodate Syrian refugee children in host communities outside of the camps. In many of the double-shift schools, Jordanian children attend the morning session while Syrian students attend the afternoon session. In less populated areas, Jordanian and Syrian children attend school together.
“The current situation has put a strain on the infrastructure and the quality of education,” said Al Okoor. Class sessions have been reduced from 45 minutes to 30 minutes as the number of students in every class has increased, reaching up to 80 students.
Jenkins said the international community is supporting the government in expanding the system but the funds received so far are not sufficient to ramp up the expansion fast enough to accommodate the current number of Syrian students and the expected growth in the number of school-age children in the future.
However, the Ministry of Education is wary of accelerating expansion in an unsustainable manner, as it funds at least two-thirds of the spending on the refugees’ education. “This includes teachers’ salaries and rental fees for 800 temporary schools that help serve the big demand,” said Al Okoor. “The rest of the financing comes from international NGOs who contribute every now and then.” Every refugee child costs the ministry between 650-700 Jordanian dinars ($916 to $986) per year, he said.
This year, UNICEF Jordan has appealed for $46.7 million in educational funding under the 2015-2016 3RP Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan and has received to date $36.2 million.
In the absence of additional classrooms and teachers, UNICEF has been focusing on providing informal education to refugee children, such as remedial classes in literacy, numeracy and languages, as they wait to join the formal school system. The Jordanian education system considers any child who misses more than three years of schooling ineligible to enroll in the public school system. “Given the challenges of out-of-school children in public schools in Jordan, other structured learning opportunities are crucial in the meantime,” said Jenkins.
In Jordan, UNICEF offers informal education with local partners such as the Jordanian Hashemite Fund for Human development (JOHUD), Save the Children Jordan, the Jordan River Foundation and many others. UNICEF also supports Questscope in running 60 centers that provide informal education for children who have missed more than three years of schooling.
UNICEF is also part of the 2013 “No Lost Generation” initiative, which builds on evidence of the impact the crisis is having on children generally, not least, the diminished access to education and protection. The partners in the initiative, which include the governments of countries hosting refugees, donors and international humanitarian and non-governmental organizations, work to address the hidden impact of the long conflict by expanding access to learning and psychosocial support and strengthening social cohesion and peace building.
“You can’t solve the problem of the lost generation only through schooling,” said Jenkins. “It is a whole package that involves attending to the psychological needs of children who have been traumatized and gone through difficulties as a result of their situation.”
But a child cannot benefit from these services if the parents are not willing to stay in their new country. A lack of educational opportunities is one push factor for families with children of school age to move on to another country where their children can continue their education. And even for the children who can find a spot in a school, it’s not guaranteed that they will stay there, especially as a family’s money runs out. Recent studies, including a UNICEF-SCF report on regional child labor and another by the Jordanian human rights nongovernmental organization Tamkeen, have found that the number of child laborers has increased in Jordan since the country first accepted Syrian refugees.
The dire financial circumstances that drive up the number of child laborers have also led to an increase in child marriage. A study by UNICEF last year revealed that one-third of marriages involving Syrian refugees in Jordan included one partner who was younger than 18, usually a girl. “These are worrying trends for us,” said Jenkins, “and the more prolonged the nature of the crisis, the more challenges will be faced.”
Yet Omaymah’s family is now considering the idea of leaving the country and heading to Germany. “Educational opportunities for me and my brothers are my parents’ main concerns to secure a better future for us,” the girl said. “Higher education is available in Jordan, but the competition is high and the expenses are much on our family to bear.”
Jenkins said the Jordanian government is doing all it can to get Syrian refugees the educational opportunities that they need.
“However, in order for this crisis to end, we really need the war to end,” he said.