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Educating Syria’s Refugee Children

BEIRUT – When I took charge of Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education in February 2014, I was presented with two huge challenges. In addition to improving the management and quality of Lebanon’s public education system, I had to determine how to handle the unprecedented influx of refugees from Syria – around half a million of them children.

One possibility would have been to focus solely on providing education to Lebanese children – thereby upholding our country’s long-held status as an important intellectual center in the Middle East – and to outsource the refugee problem to the international community. After all, Lebanon has already done far more than many other countries, accepting well over a million Syrian refugees despite the intense pressure on the local population and economy.

Instead, I took the view that, as long as these children were on Lebanese soil, we have a responsibility to provide them with a quality education in a structured environment, so that when they can finally return to Syria, they will have the skills and knowledge with which to rebuild their country. The greater risk, I felt, would have been to leave these children sitting idle, losing their hopes and aspirations, or, worse, being forced into child labor or drawn in by radical ideologies.

My ministry has worked with the international community, especially UNICEF and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, as well as international donors like the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the World Bank, to develop the strategy we call Reaching All Children with Education (RACE). Through this initiative, we have committed to support all the children and youth displaced from Syria, a country that before the war had achieved near universal enrollment.

Despite various setbacks, during the last academic year we opened 1,000 public schools to non-Lebanese students. By using many of the buildings in double shifts, we were able to provide 106,795 Syrian refugee children with schooling.

Next year, I want to go much further. I am aiming to double the number of Syrian children in our public schools to 200,000 students. This is a huge endeavor, considering that only 238,000 Lebanese students are attending public school. So I have commissioned a number of studies to help us craft a scaled-up enrollment strategy for September, and installed a project-management team in the ministry whose sole task is to make sure that we can reach this goal.

The biggest challenge, however, will be to secure the necessary financing. The biggest constraint we had in providing education to Syrian children last year was the lack of resources. Indeed, despite strong demand, lack of financing hampered our ability to increase enrollment considerably. My plan this year is to show the world that the planning, policies, and systems are in place months before the start of the school year – ready to be scaled up if the financing can be provided.

It is important to note that the Lebanese government plans to cover a large share of the cost of the program. We estimate that providing a refugee child with a place in our public schools will cost roughly $1,800 per year; donors are being asked to contribute $363 per student in the first shift and $600 per student in the second.

Unfortunately, however, the price tag for providing children with an education is just one part of the total cost of this effort. Some Syrian children will need psycho-social and health support to cope with the unimaginable trauma suffered because of the war. Language difficulties mean that some will struggle to bond with their Lebanese counterparts or learn at the same rate. New schools may need to be constructed. Transportation will need to be found and funded. And finally – and importantly for me – the program will have to be designed in a way that ensures that Lebanese parents don’t feel compelled to pull their children out of public school and incur debts by educating them privately.

Each of these challenges will cost money, which is why we hope that, as we approach the beginning of the school year in September, the international community will urgently increase its financial support to Lebanon. With no end in sight to the crisis in Syria, it is likely that we will need to provide these children with education for years to come. So I call on donors to make multi-year commitments that enable us to ensure the students are able to complete their schooling.

Lebanon is not able to bear this burden alone. We are facing a shortfall of $100 million for the new school year. Without additional support from the international community, our vision will not be realized – despite strong political will and rigorous planning. Lebanon often struggles to attract funding because of its status as a middle-income country, but this label is misleading, as it does not take into account serious structural weaknesses that pre-date the Syrian crisis or the huge proportion of the resident population composed of refugees from Syria, Palestine, and Iraq living in abject poverty.

One thing I hope will become clear at the Oslo education summit is the need to help middle-income countries affected by fragility and conflict. I am thankful to the donors who have been with us from the beginning, but we now need additional international support. This September, we have the potential to enroll nearly half the refugee children in our country in the public-school system. The alternative is leaving hundreds of thousands of children on the streets, languishing in informal settlements with an uncertain future.

Elias Bou Saab is Lebanon’s Minister of Education.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.

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