Lebanon has become one of the most preferred countries for refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria since 2011. The major factor in this was the historical ties between the two countries, the fact that many Syrians were already working as seasonal workers in Lebanon before the war, the open borders between the two countries and the common spoken language. Some Syrians who have migrated to Lebanon with their families since 2011 have received refugee status by registering with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
The Lebanese government has stated many times that Lebanon is not a country of asylum. Though until 2015, it has “tolerated” the stay of Syrians. According to UNHCR figures, when the number of refugees in the country reached almost 1 million, the state practices became stricter. In one view, Syrians, the majority of whom are Sunnis, could disrupt the sectarian balance of political order in Lebanon. In another opinion, Lebanon whose economy was already suffering was not in a position to host Syrians. Despite the divisions in political views regarding the Asad regime, almost all parties in Lebanon agreed that Syrians should return to Syria as soon as possible.
© Derya Özkul, Bar Elias, 2019
In the first years of the war, Syrian children could enroll in public schools if there was availability. But as their numbers increased, the Lebanese government developed a separate school system for Syrians. Accordingly, Lebanese students continue in their normal school hours until 2 pm; and Syrian students go to what is called ‘afternoon schools’ between 2-7 pm.
Although the system was arranged in good faith and received a significant amount of international aid, it was soon found that this system could only produce limited success. In my research, I found that almost all families complained about the poor quality of education provided in these schools. Lebanese teachers work in morning and afternoon shifts for additional income. Syrian teachers are not allowed to teach in schools, and in general, the quality of education is lower compared with the one in ‘morning schools’. In general, students find the science courses difficult, as these are taught in French or English in Lebanon, unlike Arabic in Syria. Those who had to stop going to school before suffer most and often fall behind those who already know these languages.
Apart from the quality of education, the fact that these schools are in the afternoon and finish at 7 pm makes it difficult for children to go to school. Students cannot return home alone, especially in winter, because the school roads are dark; and this encourages many families to prevent their children from attending school.
Another factor is the lack of space even in afternoon schools. For example, in the Beqa’a region, which is located between Lebanon and Syria, schools in the Bar Elias district dominated by Sunnis can only accept 500 students. But it is estimated that in the same district there are 1,500 Syrian students. For this reason, many school administrations have been unable to enroll children not only in morning schools but also in afternoon schools.
Additionally, each school requires different documents during registration. For some, the document provided at birth in hospitals is sufficient, while others require the UNHCR registration document, the vaccination document or residence permit in Lebanon. As many studies have shown, it is extremely hard to get these documents. In order to obtain the vaccination certificate, one may need to go to Syria; and most Syrian children do not have a residence permit in Lebanon.
Finally, the most important challenge is the lack of money and the need for family labour. Child labour is very common, especially in the agricultural sector. Families may prefer to have their children work in the fields rather than going to schools in the evenings. Or, in some cases, even if families do want to send them to school, camp leaders or shaweeshes (those who find the jobs for families) may not allow children to go to school. Some camp leaders and shaweeshes have also reportedly abused children.
All these challenges have led to the emergence of alternative education systems in Lebanon. The most important of these are alternative schools established by local or international non-governmental organizations. These schools, depending on the amount of funding, teach Syrian children in accordance with the Syrian curriculum. Of course, the numbers are still limited and may change every year depending on the amount of funding received that year. Secondly, informal education systems have emerged, especially in the Beqa’a region, where informal settlements are located. Syrians and some Lebanese have started to teach children in settlements either voluntarily or for some money. Since generally Syrians give these lessons, they teach the Syrian curriculum as well. However, these courses cannot be given regularly because they are taught according to the teacher’s suitability. Teachers may not be able to teach regularly because they depend on precarious daily work. Children may also not be able to attend regularly because they also may need to work. Therefore, the biggest challenge in alternative education systems is to maintain the consistency. In any case, it is impossible for students studying in these schools to obtain a graduation certificate that is applicable in Lebanon, which makes the whole system only a short-term solution.
Despite all the difficulties, most families in my research did not want to return to Syria. The main reasons for this were that if they return men in the families would be forced to go to the army; many families would not be able to re-acquire their properties either because they were destructed or because they were confiscated. Single mothers may lose the custody over their children, and some Syrians would just not be able to live under the Asad regime. Finally, even though the conditions in some cities are improving, the cost of living and unemployment rates are still very high in Syria. In my research, the future plans of Syrian men were unknown, while women mostly wanted their children to receive a good education. Assuming that the majority of Syrians will remain in Lebanon, despite all the difficulties, the Lebanese state has to develop a long term education policy for Syrians and other nationalities who do not have a residency permit in Lebanon.
In short, in this case, although Arabic is the common language between Lebanese and Syrian students, Syrian children experience great difficulties in their access to education. The situation in Lebanon shows that education in the mother tongue is not sufficient and that it must be carried out systematically with long-term policies.