Syrian schools are struggling to accomodate the influx of Iraqi refugee children as the new schoolyear begins, the United Nations childrens' agency reports. Below is a video released by UNICEF, along with full text of a report issued on the agency's website.
DAMASCUS, Syria, 25 September 2008 – It is the beginning of the new school year in Syria, but a majority of the students are not Syrian. They are Iraqis whose families have fled conflict. When the lives of children like these are turned upside down, going to school can provide the stability they need.
But the education system here is under pressure. During the last school year, more than 50,000 Iraqi youngsters were studying in Syrian schools. And the Ministry of Education expects new enrolments to rise again this year.
The Syrian Government has given all Iraqi children access to education, but the sheer numbers of students involved make this goal difficult to achieve.
Challenge of overcrowding
One school on the edge of Damascus, which has recently doubled in size, now operates a double shift. Students from the morning shift leave through one gate at lunchtime, while the afternoon shift enters through another.
“The Directorate of Education has changed some schools into two shifts to enrol the Iraqi children, but this did not really solve the problem. Sometimes, the number in one class can reach 50 or 55,” said the Director of Planning and Statistics for the Ministry of Education, Abdulsalam Salameh.
The double shift is a challenge for teachers and school administrators. Large class sizes make it difficult to improve the quality of education and bring in new curricula. School yards are crowded, and facilities are overused.
Another challenge stems from the fact that Syrian children start studying English in the first grade, but Iraqi students are new to it when they enter school in later grades. These different experiences create a large gap in the classroom, causing difficulties for both teachers and students.
“When the teacher slows down the pace of the class, it has a great impact on the progress of the class,” said one head teacher, Mayas Ahmar.
Creating child-friendly schools
In response to this situation, UNICEF and the European Union have been helping to upgrade facilities in more than 200 Syrian schools by providing computer equipment, desks and other supplies. Over the summer, many buildings were renovated to be more child-friendly.
“They are repairing the toilets, making sure that there is drinkable water and making sure that the school is more appealing to children. This is very tangible support,” said UNICEF Damascus Programme Officer Marc Lucet.
Teachers and other staff are also attending workshops on how to make their schools more child-friendly. (To help countries such as Syria improve the quality of education – a key UNICEF priority – the organization will launch a new 'Child-Friendly School Manual' this year. The manual will provide governments with a framework to design and implement child-friendly schools.)
Despite all these efforts, though, maintaining a sense of normalcy when they are far from home continues to be a daily struggle for many Iraqi refugee children.