Since the popular uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad began to propel Syria into civil war in early 2011, tens of thousands have been killed, 2.5 million people have been internally displaced and more than 728,000 have fled to neighbouring countries.
For some, it is not the first time they have encountered such upheaval. There are 525,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria, part of a 5 million-strong group scattered across Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank.
For the UN Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA), which was established in 1949 to support Palestinian refugees, the conflict presents some major challenges, not least in terms of education. The agency provides schooling to almost half a million children, nearly 67,000 of whom are in Syria.
“Our education facilities in Syria have been badly affected,” says Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for UNRWA. “There are real and present dangers to pupils and staff, which mean that attendance levels have been down, with some schools completely closed.”
Of the 129 UNRWA schools in Syria, 61 are closed and 10 more are being used to house those sheltering from the violence. Just 58 are operating normally.
With 700 schools across the region, the agency is one of the largest providers of education in the Middle East. But what it has in scale, it often lacks in resources. A shortage of space means three quarters of its schools operate on a double-shift system, with two consecutive streams running in one building on the same day. Many schools are in urgent need of upgrade, expansion or replacement. Although there is an ongoing building programme, the agency’s budget cannot meet demand.
Our education facilities in Syria have been badly affected. There are real and present dangers to pupils and staff
Christopher Gunness, UNRWA
Irbid Camp Elementary Girls’ School No 1 & 2 in Jordan is typical in that respect. It is one of four schools in the camp and runs one shift from 7am until 11.30am and a second from 11.30am to 4pm. Its pupils have never been to the West Bank, from which their parents and grandparents fled following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Nonetheless, they say they still think of Palestine as home and a place to which they would like to “return”. Many still have relatives in Syria.
The school was built with aid from Germany and inaugurated by Queen Rania in February 2000. Some teaching staff are provided by the Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the Polish government has donated a computer lab. Despite this aid, more investment is needed. “All the schools inside the camps are suffering from overcrowding,” says one teacher.
Teachers at other UNRWA schools in Jordan report that Palestinian children coming from Syria have been taken in, but other refugees are not always so lucky. “I have the feeling there is an increase in the number of women and children begging in the city,” says one teacher in Amman. “When they beg, they often say, ‘I’m from Syria.’”
UNRWA does at least have long experience in dealing with trying circumstances, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank, where it has hired teams of trauma counsellors to work with children emotionally scarred by war. Such experience will help as it now tries to assist children to cope with what is happening in Syria.
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“The Israeli Occupation, frequent incidents of armed conflict and movement restrictions often pose serious obstacles to regular school attendance for children in Gaza and the West Bank,” says Gunness. “In Gaza, students lost many school days during the Israeli offensive in 2008-09 and many of them also experienced post-traumatic stress.
“Millions of dollars of UNRWA construction projects, including schools, remain suspended. Textbooks, notebooks and chalk are often delayed for months at a time. There is a shortage of uniforms, bags and school supplies. Most significantly, the blockade has left many parents unemployed, leading to further poverty.”
Amid all the chaos, though, UNRWA pupils perform impressively. The latest figures available are for 2010, before the Syrian conflict began, and show good results across the agency’s schools. The West Bank came top of the class with a pass rate of 97 per cent. In Syria, it was 96 per cent, in Jordan and Gaza, it was 95 per cent, while in Lebanon it was 84 per cent.
Such achievements offer hope that children will be able to carve out a successful career once they leave school. Pupils in Irbid talk of wanting to become doctors, engineers and geologists.
Meanwhile, in the concrete yard outside the school, a wall is enlivened by graffiti, including a line in English that reads, “No child is left behind”. Another in Arabic translates as “Education is a right for all”. Events in Syria are testing such sentiments to the limit.
UNRWA provides schooling to almost half a million Palestinian children, nearly 67,000 of whom are in Syria