Educating Syria's Children

By Marc Hanson
Syrian children in Qah grab hold of each other's backpacks as they walk from their camp to a nearby school.

An edited version of this piece appeared on The Hill's Congress Blog.

She was a brave girl. I never heard her name or her age, and only through a translation of the event after did I know what she was saying. She stood alone in the middle of an austere classroom in Qah, a town in northern Syria. Her classmates huddled tightly around the edges of the room. Several Syrian expatriates, representing the school's financial lifeline, and a few school employees stood at the front.

A small but unbridgeable chasm separated her from all around. Tears welled in her large brown eyes, hesitated, then rolled down her full cheeks. Her voice never wavered, nor did it boom. Her eyes, somehow soft and youthful, but hauntingly penetrating, never shifted. Her figure stood upright and broad. She was a very brave girl.

Speaking softly and steadily – but still with tears in her eyes – she told us how she had fled her home near Aleppo. She lost several family members, including her father and a brother, during the rebels’ advance on the city and the government’s relentless bombardment. Her mother was not with her either. 

Forced to flee for her life, she now lives in an impromptu camp for displaced people just outside Qah, 20 kilometers south of the Turkish border. She shares an overcrowded tent with her brother and his family.

Like millions of other Syrian kids, her childhood has been violently interrupted by this long and brutal war. Unlike most, however, she is attending school. It’s impossible to know exactly how many Syrian children still have access to education. But out of the millions of Syrian refugees and internally displaced children, very few are attending classes.

The school that I visited in Qah had reopened just the week before, thanks to financial support from Syrian expatriates. It has since been overwhelmed by the massive number of new arrivals fleeing violence around Aleppo and Idlib. A second school for children from the camp and the wider community is already under construction, and it will soon be filled with kids. But many more young Syrians will still be left without a place.

Other, larger camps in this part of Syria are finding it impossible to meet the demand for school spaces, and there is little money for teachers and administrators. Some aid organizations are trying to re-open schools here, but without more resources and more strategic partnerships, years of learning will be lost.

Educating Syrians in neighboring countries has also been challenging. Before visiting Qah, I spoke with the deputy mayor of Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey that hosts tens of thousands of refugees. Together with a well-organized group of Syrian businessmen (who are themselves refugees), the city government has opened a school for Syrian kids. The classes are taught in Arabic by well qualified Syrian refugee teachers, and a few hours of Turkish language instruction are also offered.

This initiative is in many ways a model for educating urban refugees, but it would have to be scaled-up dramatically to meet the needs of all children. The deputy mayor told me that 800 kids now take classes at the school, and that even if he could open another school the same size it would fill up immediately – as would the next one and the one after that. Though he expressed a willingness to let Syrian students use local schools after hours, he said that the city did not have the money to pay for administrative support, teacher salaries, and programming.

Other southern Turkish cities that host a far greater proportion of Syrian refugees are finding it even more challenging to meet children’s needs for education, recreation, and psycho-social care. Gaziantep might provide an example for how to start, but outside help will be needed to create anything remotely comprehensive.

Aside from Turkey itself, the U.S. is the leading humanitarian donor when it comes to Syria, and American funds are already helping to educate displaced Syrian children. But more can be done. In Turkey, the U.S. should consider providing bilateral grants to local governments, either directly or through NGO partners. And in Syria, USAID and the State Department must work harder to identify and fund responsible Syrian aid groups who can reach desperate populations.

Whether inside or outside Syria, young people are having their childhoods suspended, their educations halted, and their dreams dimmed. Reviving school life is one thing that can both mitigate their misery and contribute to Syria's future.