What school's really like for Syrian refugee children - and what UNHCR is doing to help
If class sizes in Australian schools seem large, spare a thought for children in Jordan, who are often taught in groups of 50 at a time.
Educating children is just one of the challenges for a country that has absorbed more than 650,000 Syrian refugees since 2011 – and undoubtedly many more that haven’t registered with UNHCR.
“School capacities and infrastructure is a huge, huge issue,” says Zeina Jadaan, UNHCR’s Head of Education in Jordan, and an expert in humanitarian and development policy.
“The situation is quite overwhelming. But we’re working closely with the Jordanian government and other agencies, and donors, to make sure we can uphold our commitment to children’s education.”
Jordan has always been a place of refuge for displaced people in the Middle East, even though it lacks the wealth-creating natural resources of its neighbours. As far as back as 1960, when Palestinian refugees fled across the border, some schools adopted a “double shift” system, with one cohort taught in a morning session, and another group of children in the afternoon.
Today, the double shift is normal, as schools simply can’t accommodate all students at the same time.
“The first shift starts at 8am and ends by 1.30pm, and the second shift starts at 2pm and ends at around 5pm, according to the information we have from the Ministry of Education,” says Jadaan. “The double shift is not the preferred system, for children, families or the Ministry, but it’s the only solution for the time being.”
As well as Arabic – their first language – children study English, mathematics, social studies and science, among other subjects. Girls and boys may be taught together in primary school, but are separated for classes in high school.
While school participation rates are relatively high for refugee children in primary school (129,000 Syrian children attended primary school in 2020-21), they drop dramatically at secondary level.
The challenges faced by refugee children are well-documented, but still heartbreaking.
“The key reason is the economic situation, where 80 per cent of refugees live under the poverty line,” says Jadaan. “The need for children to make an economic contribution to the family leads to school dropout, particularly for boys, while for girls, child marriage remains an issue.”
As UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, noted in an education report released last week: “Once access to education has been lost, it is not easy to reclaim it.” But UNHCR, along with other agencies, donors and the Jordanian government, is rising to the task.
Three years ago, UNHCR partnered with Google to establish Connected Learning Hubs, housed in community centres across Jordan. Kitted out with computers and tablets – a boon for children who often don’t have a computer at home – the hubs use a unique learning platform to teach children English, STEM, coding and other important skills.
“There are different classes throughout the day, so children can come in before or after their school shifts, and they’re run by both refugee and Jordanian coaches, as well as UNHCR scholarship students,” says Jadaan. “It’s an interesting community-based educational approach.”
In addition to the hubs, UNHCR has provided 100 temporary housing units to the Ministry of Education, which have been distributed to schools for use as classrooms. UNHCR has also supported training in gender equity and engagement for school teachers and supervisors.
For Jadaan, whose work includes high-level policy work at a country level, there are also wider, philosophical considerations when it comes to education.
“When we talk about education, particularly for this generation, I think it’s really important that we’re not only speaking about bachelor degrees [as an end point]. They’re important, but we can also think about parallel educational programmes, micro degrees, technical and vocational programs that address what the market and the private sector really needs.
“What labour mobility can we open up for these students? How can we prepare them for managing home-based businesses, project management, digital technology? These are huge questions, with many answers.
“A refugee child who arrived in Jordan as a baby at the start of the crisis is now 11 or 12,” she adds. “We’re educating a generation of refugees and we have a responsibility to prepare them for self-reliance, whether that’s here, back home or overseas.”
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