Richard Alam from Teach for Lebanon critiques the refugee strategy related to children in Syria. This blog can also be reviewed, rated and commented on at this link.
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After 3 years of civil war, or revolution or civil unrest (I’m not sure what to call it anymore…) the world now faces one of the worst humanitarian crises in the modern history of the Middle East - or to be geographically accurate, West Asia. Over three million Syrian children are internally displaced, and over one million Syrian children have fled to neighboring countries for safety.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), over one million Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon, a country with a population of only 4 million. However, local statistics suggest that the number is much higher simply because the borders between Lebanon and Syria have always been widely open (despite what Sykes and Picot would have wished) and effective control of the border is very difficult. About 40 percent of the registered refugees are children. Sadly, these 400,000 (registered) Syrian children are at risk of becoming a lost generation, as graphically illustrated by the lack of educational opportunities (and the supportive environment that schools generate).
I will try to make this post a lot less about numbers and statistics and a lot more about humanity. Too often, the world treats victims of violence, war or occupation in the region as numbers to be used in international meetings, or (excuse my cynicism) in Gala dinners to raise money to send powdered milk cans and rice.
In March 2014, UNHCR chief Antonio Guterres stated that Lebanon now has the highest per capita concentration of refugees worldwide, adding that "the number of school-aged children now is over 400,000". These children are being left behind, with many (a number I dare not say) forced into child labour.
A friend working on a UN-funded educational initiative told me that she was not sure that the world or the UN actually realize the gravity of the situation. With the limited funding available to UN agencies such as UNHCR and UNICEF, my friend (who wished to remain anonymous) expressed her frustration with the fact that Syrian families are often forced to choose between sending their children to school and losing them as breadwinners, or having their children - as young as 8 or 9 - work to support the family, in the process sacrificing their education.
With the absence of organized refugee camps - a solution that the Lebanese government has continuously turned down for fear of them becoming permanent - Syrian refugees are scattered all over the country. This makes it even more difficult to ensure that aid reaches all refugees, and for temporary schools to be established. If the Syrian refugees were housed in UN-run refugee camps (unlike the appalling conditions of some of the unorganized camps in the Beqaa Valley), Syrian children would be able to go to schools, similar to UNRWA ones, where they could receive some form of protection and support.
So what are some of the challenges the Syrian children face? To begin with, in the absence of a national strategy supported by international aid, Lebanon is offering very little to the refugees, especially the most vulnerable ones. With over two hundred smaller but unofficial refugee camps, Syrian children are left to fend for themselves. Reports of abuse (sexual and physical) against children – perpetrated either by other refugees or members of the local population – have become the daily headlines in Beirut. Scarred by the trauma of war, many Syrian children are kept out of protective environments whether it be a home or a school, and forced into labor where most of the abuse occurs.
Children who are lucky enough to be saved from child labor and are enlisted in Lebanese public schools, are unfortunately far from being in the protective environment that they deserve. From my personal experience working in the educational sector for 5 years and from all the reports I have read on this issue, Syrian children face a number of challenges. Although public education in Lebanon is free, many refugees are still expected to pay certain fees (including transportation and books); given the circumstances, this is often impossible. And as if the trauma of war is not enough, racism and bullying are often the daily experience for many of the Syrian students.
The reality is that in the absence of a unified national/international strategy for follow up and integration programs, Syrian children who have fled their homes, toys and life, have lost the last place where they can feel safe - a school.
I grew up in a family that lived through at least twenty years of civil war. Both of my parents were forced out of school as young as 8 and spent their days burying beloved ones, and trying to make ends meet. It breaks my heart to see now one generation after the other from Lebanon to Palestine, from Iraq to Syria - generations that have been lost to war, occupation and injustice. I hope all of us - the world - will realize what we are doing (or not doing) before it is too late.
If it is not too late already.