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Don’t Forget Our Unfulfilled Promise to Syrian Refugee Children

Escalating violence in Syria is a reminder that the war is far from over. A focus on Syrian returns had distracted from failures on refugee education, says Jesuit Refugee Service’s Giulia McPherson, urging donors to now refocus on their commitments to Syrian children.

Written by Giulia McPherson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Jesuit Refugee Service kindergarten classes in Baalbek, December 2017.Giulia McPherson/Jesuit Refugee Service

“All I want is for things to go back to normal,” 10-year-old Abd, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, told me recently. Abd, who loves to draw, is in grade 4, but already dreams of becoming a doctor.

I met him during a visit in late 2017 to refugee parents, teachers, principals and students who benefit from Jesuit Refugee Service’s educational programs in Lebanon. Some had been living in Lebanon since the start of the Syrian civil war, others had arrived in recent months. “We were afraid. There was too much violence,” one parent told me of their flight from Syria. “We were scared our children would be forced to fight,” another said.

At the time, there was discussion in the media and among policymakers in Lebanon about the possible return of refugees to Syria due to a relative reduction in violence. Yet, for every Syrian who returned home in 2017, three Syrians were newly displaced. This year has also seen a dramatic uptick in violence in the suburbs of Damascus, including Eastern Ghouta. To date, over 500 people have been killed there in some of the fiercest fighting since the start of the war.

This violence is the latest reminder that the war in Syria is far from over. While it remains unsafe for Syrians to return to their country, we must ensure that children like Abd can have as normal a life as possible in the countries where they are sheltering.

Abd, who loves to draw, is in grade 4, but already dreams of becoming a doctor. (Giulia McPherson/Jesuit Refugee Service)

The recent focus on Syrian returns has drawn attention away from the fact that many Syria refugee children and adolescents are still out of school and that international funding commitments have not been met.

In 2016 and 2017, donors came together in London and Brussels to discuss how to support Syrian refugees and the countries hosting them. These donors made commitments on jobs, education and protection for Syrian refugees, including a commitment to ensure that all refugee and vulnerable children in host communities would have access to quality education by the end of the 2016-17 school year. Yet, at the end of 2017, UNHCR reported that 59 percent of school-aged refugees in Lebanon are out of formal education.

The Lebanese government has made significant strides in increasing access to education for refugees. Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) has taken the lead role in coordinating educational services for Syrians. In 2014, the ministry launched an initiative called Reaching All Children with Education (RACE), targeting both Lebanese and refugee school-age children and adolescents.

Some 350 “second-shift” schools have been opened to accommodate refugee students, and over 221,6000 Syrian children are currently registered in Lebanese public schools. Jesuit Refugee Service has been implementing education programs for refugees in Lebanon since 2012, providing education, social and mental health and psychosocial services for refugees.

However, a number of barriers remain. This includes systemic bullying and violence perpetrated against refugee students; lack of psychosocial support due to trauma; minimal opportunities for adolescents, including access to secondary school; lack of services for children with special needs; and limited work opportunities for parents, which often forces families to make the difficult decision to send their child to work rather than to school.

We are all responsible for failing the 59 percent of Syrian children who are out of formal school in Lebanon.

While there was significant momentum after the 2016 London Conference towards prioritizing education for Syrian refugees, the reality is that commitments made have not been met. According to UNHCR, only 25 percent of funding required to meet the educational needs of refugees in Lebanon has been received. In addition, a November 2017 update from MEHE noted that only 47 percent of its 2018 work plan had been funded.

Amid the escalating violence, the leaders of three U.N. agencies recently noted the importance of sustained support to Syrian refugees and their host countries. “It is vital for the international community to continue to support Syrian refugee families whose needs and challenges increase with every passing day, week, month and year in displacement,” they said.

In April 2018, donors will reconvene for a second Brussels Conference on Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region. In the midst of ongoing violence and destruction in Syria, this will be an important opportunity to highlight the gaps that still remain in ensuring access to education for Syrian refugees and hold donors accountable for previous commitments made.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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