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According to the latest reports from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), there are approximately 5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance, 3.6 million of which are internally displaced in Syria, and 1.4 million of which have become refugees in neighboring countries. Of these refugees, it is estimated by UNICEF that at least 50% (or close to 700,000) are under the age of 18.
The needs of these refugees begins with the basics, including safety, health, nutrition and shelter. And while different refugees in different regions have had access to these basic elements to varying degrees, increasingly the issues are turning to children’s needs. Ted Chaiban, director of UNICEF’s Emergency Programs, recently affirmed the predicament:
“The international community has been working for two years to rescue Syrian children from irreparably damaged futures. Don’t forget the Syrian child. Don’t forget that this child who, until 22 months ago, went to school, played [with] their friends, lived in their own homes … this is now a child who, for no fault of his or her own, is displaced, has seen conflict, has seen violence – needs your support.”
As basic security, shelter and nutrition are being attended to by the international donor agencies and neighboring countries, the next battle that will need to be fought will be that of the children’s future. Education is becoming the top priority to keep all these children occupied and prepare them for their eventual post-conflict return to their nation. It is of crucial importance to Syria and the region that this generation of Syrian children not end up irreparably damaged as a result of this war, as it may lead to further bouts of violence in the future.
When it comes to providing education to these refugee children, however, there are several challenges. First, there is the challenge of being able to reach the widest number of children in the shortest amount of time. In a recent project proposal to an international donor agency, the suggested number of children to be reached with a traditional school approach was a maximum 2,000 over a two-year period. While all initiatives should be commended at this point, it does imply that reaching the full number of nearly 700,000 Syrian refugee children would take 350 of these projects deployed over multiple decades, when the dire need for solutions is now.
The second issue has to do with teachers. It is estimated that there is a need to train about 15,000 to 20,000 teachers in the region in the next six months. Again, the challenge here is both scale and time, particularly because of geographic dispersion. Teachers are scattered in neighboring Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon, and increasingly as far away as Europe and the Americas.
Third, there is the issue of facilities. It is important to differentiate the types of refugees and their locations. For example, while there are those in rural camps that have very basic facilities, many are moving into neighboring urban centers such as Beirut, Amman, Urfa (southern Turkey), Baghdad and Cairo in search of better basic amenities. Recent reports from the Zaatari camp in Jordan, for instance, have highlighted migration of camp numbers, primarily to Amman. The good news here is that aside from basic amenities, these neighboring urban centers provide better connectivity to electricity, mobility and the Internet.
And finally, there is the issue of the curriculum. The Syrian government, for all its shortcomings, has in the past several decades done a fairly good job of standardizing the national curriculum. The Syrian national exams are fundamentally based on a well-structured K-12 curriculum.
Unfortunately, in conversations that I have held with officials at NGOs in the region, there are now four curricula being used to teach the Syrian refugee children, the Syrian official curriculum, the Lebanese, the Jordanian, and interestingly the Libyan post-revolution curriculum. The basic official Syrian curriculum is still being used in the camps close to or inside Syria. In Jordan and Lebanon, however, children are being integrated into the respective public school systems. This means that those children will have to study either the Jordanian or Lebanese curriculum, both of which are fairly different from the Syrian curriculum and use English and French to teach mathematics and science. This could create learning difficulties for the Syrian children. And finally, in southern Turkey’s refugee camps, the chosen curriculum was the post-Gadhafi Libyan educational curriculum, simply because it is in Arabic (Arabs generally do not speak Turkish). Of course, while these differences may pale in comparison to the importance of simply getting the kids back in school, standardizing the learning process for these kids for eventual official Syrian testing purposes should remain a key element of the basket of policy objectives.
With all the above issues in mind, the main question to be asking is whether there is a way to provide a solution with immediate cost-effective scaling potential. The answer is yes. Technology can provide effective educational methods that can be used to not only train the teachers more quickly, but also to reach children directly, providing them with catch-up study methods. It can also serve as a self-study method where schools may not be available. It could also be used to train the teachers as well as create communities of learning that cut across international borders.
There are three specific technology solutions that could help bridge the educational chasm for the refugees. First, Massive Open Online Courseware (MOOCs) can be accessed online or downloaded from anywhere in the world free of charge. Deploying an online version of the Arabic Syrian curriculum and making it available worldwide for easy and light download access would help reach thousands of Syrian refugees with IT access. Syrian government attempts to do this have failed as the technology utilized is hard to access given the standards used and technically too hefty for the available bandwidth–one curriculum could weigh as much as 2 gigabytes to download.