I have arrived in Lebanon where NRC has been active since 2006. This country is currently host to over 700,000 registered Syrian refugees, several hundred thousand other Syrians who also have left the country and over 92,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria. One in five people in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee and yet this country has maintained a relatively open border for most refugees since the beginning of the conflict.
I began my day at an NRC community centre in the Bekaa valley. The community centres are at the heart of NRC’s protection work in Lebanon, a place where refugees can find information to help them navigate services, registration and other resources in Lebanon. NRC also offers informal education and recreational programs for refugee children.
The kids kicked off my day with a song about why it is important to drink your milk. A good lesson, well received!
When I asked the kids why they come to the community centre, it was not for the singing or the games, though. They come because they “want to keep learning.”
For many refugee children, it has become impossible to continue their formal education. The government of Lebanon has given permission for Syrian refugee children to register in Lebanese schools, but only a fraction of school aged children were able to register for the last school year.
Space constraints are a major barrier, but language is a bigger hurdle. In Syria, lessons are taught in Arabic, but in Lebanon French and English are to be the official teaching languages.
There are financial hurdles as well. I was told that more and more kids – including very young children – are being put to work to help support their families in an environment where the need to survive is overshadowing the long-term benefits of education.
The parents I spoke with are very concerned about gaps in their children’s education, but another issue has become a priority: how to renew the documents that allow them to stay legally in Lebanon. For many of the refugees that I spoke to, work is scarce, savings have run out and the renewal fees are just impossible to afford. People with expired documents run the risk of detention and harassment if they are caught, so more and more people are simply not leaving their homes.
Restrictions on movement and constant fear of harassment and detention isolates refugees from their communities. It prevents them from working, and from accessing services like medical care. It is a huge source of stress for families already deeply affected by the conflict they escaped from in Syria.
Barriers to education represent a much more persistent threat – one that risks the future of an entire generation of Syrian children. In the short term these hurdles deprive traumatized children of the safe, comfortable, social spaces they need to process traumatic experiences they have all just gone through. In the long-run, a failure to educate refugee children will have a terrible impact on the re-building of Syria.
In Lebanon, NRC is always looking for solutions to the issues that leave refugees feeling unsettled and unsafe, and we are working hard to improve kid’s access to the education they deserve. As humanitarians, our role is not simply to keep people alive. We also have a duty to protect refugees from social and psychological harm, and to help restore a sense of normalcy and peace of mind in deeply abnormal circumstances.
Follow Jan on twitter at @NRC_Egeland, and follow his field mission at #SGsDiary.