Eight years after Syrians began to enter Lebanon in flight from an uprising that turned into civil war, young refugees continue to struggle for integration into the Lebanese education system at every level—primary and secondary schools and higher education. Indeed, by some measures, the educational outlook for Syrians is getting worse.
“This year, the number of scholarships available to Syrian refugees to study in Lebanon is decreasing,” said Ben Webster, founder of Mosaik, a U.K.-based organization that helps Syrian refugees reach higher education in Lebanon and Jordan. Webster ascribes the decrease to a combination of donor fatigue, the funding cycles of the large organizations working in the field and a re-orientation towards vocational training. (See a related article, “Donor Interest Fades in Scholarships for Refugees.”)
Lebanon hosts about one million registered Syrian refugees, according to the United Nations refugee agency, and has the world’s highest per capita refugee population, although it stopped registering Syrians in 2016. In a fragile state built on a precarious social and political equilibrium, Lebanese institutions are straining to meet a variety of needs that are intensifying as the Syrian civil war continues. Hate speech against Syrians has been on the rise in the last year.
About 7,000 Syrian refugees were students in Lebanon’s universities in the 2017-18 academic year. Since there are about 117,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon between the ages of 18 and 24, this means that only about 6 percent of college-age Syrians are enrolled in Lebanese universities, when about a quarter of college-age Syrians were studying in Syrian universities before the war.
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International organizations providing scholarships and funding for Syrians in higher education in Lebanon see a new trend beginning to emerge. “The intake of students is more modest than in previous years,” says Maren Kroeger, manager of the DAFI (Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative) program at the United Nations refugee agency, one of the largest providers of higher-education scholarships for Syrian refugees. (See a related article, “First Refugee Scholarship Program Experiences Rapid Growth.”)
A Plugged Pipeline
Fewer young Syrians are eligible for higher education because fewer of them are graduating from Lebanese secondary schools. In Jordan, by contrast, more students qualify for DAFI scholarships because “they graduate from high school with quite good results,” Kroeger says.
“The problem is with secondary education,” says Mustapha Jazar of LASeR, a nongovernmental organization with an educational focus based in Tripoli, Lebanon. “At this rate, we will not have enough eligible candidates to serve with scholarships.”
The Syrian students have come to a country that now wants them to return home. Lebanon never subscribed to the 1951 Geneva Convention on the status of refugees; generations of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 Arab–Israeli war are still living in Lebanon without citizenship. Syrians in Lebanon can work legally only in agriculture and construction. Many don’t have legal residency, and live in fear of official checkpoints. (See a related article, “Syrian Refugees Are Often Steered Into Illegal Jobs.”)
“Syrians are only going back to Syria because the Lebanese security forces are making their life hell in Lebanon,” said Jazar. “If a Syrian is caught at a security checkpoint without a residency permit, he is put into detention for three days and then released.”
In this context, Syrian students face steep obstacles even after they have secured a place at a university, and they prefer to avoid crossing checkpoints when commuting to university.
Their experience as refugees makes integrating into university life difficult. Not only do they bring with them the trauma of war, but also family responsibilities, often as breadwinners. Syrian refugee students often face discrimination, and if they take part at all in extracurricular activities, they will usually choose to do voluntary work with Syrian refugee groups outside the university.
“The Lebanese higher-education system has been very welcoming, but there is still more that we can do.”Hana Addam El-Ghali
of the American University of Beirut
Nevertheless, “The Lebanese higher-education system has been very welcoming” to young Syrians, said Hana Addam El-Ghali of the American University of Beirut, speaking at a conference in September on integrating Syrian refugees into Lebanese higher education. (A video of the conference is available here.) “But there is still more that we can do.”
A Syrian woman student named Islam—studying at AUB on a Mastercard scholarship—who spoke at the conference described the culture shock she experienced in Lebanon.
“In Syria, I lived in a very religious and conservative environment. My small community was homogeneous, and everyone was of the same religion. Boys and girls were always separated. At AUB, I was the only girl in my class, and we had to work together in class activities,” she said.
Language is one of the biggest challenges Syrian students face. In Syria, teaching at all levels is in Arabic; at Lebanese private universities it is typically in English or French. At this point in the crisis, however, the failure of Syrian students to learn English or French has to be laid to the Lebanese schools they are attending, since most students have not just walked across the border. Syrian refugee students at the American University of Beirut take a year-long preparatory course, including intensive English, before they begin their degree courses.
One of the biggest obstacles that young Syrians encounter in enrolling in Lebanese secondary schools is the Lebanese law that requires students to have a residence permit in order to register for high school. (Under pressure from international organizations, the Lebanese government waived the requirement for registration in primary schools.)
As an expedient, in recent years the Lebanese ministry of education has issued a decree a few days before the start of the school year allowing young Syrians to register for secondary school without a residency permit. This window of opportunity remains open for five working days before closing again, says Jazar.
Only about half of eligible Syrian refugee children are enrolled in primary schools in Lebanon. Of these roughly 200,000 Syrian children, more than half, must attend “second shift” classes—a school day that takes place from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., after the normal school day has finished and when teachers are tired. (See a related article, “Few Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon Get Into Secondary Education”.)
The DAFI scholarships follow an agreement made with other donors in the field to pay Syrian students in Lebanon a monthly living allowance of $200—which mainly supports transportation and rent, Maren Kroger said. Before the agreement, students often sought to transfer to whatever scholarship program paid the highest stipend.
Almost as soon as the Syrian refugee crisis began, higher education administrators in host countries faced the problem of applicants who didn’t have essential documents such as transcripts. (See a related article, “Report Examines Progress in Recognizing Refugees’ Credentials”.)
A solution to the problem emerged in Norway in 2016. The Norwegian refugee agency Nokut devised what Marina Malgina of Nokut described at the conference as “a standardized process to recognize the qualifications of individuals so we can place them in universities or the job market.” A formula for comparing educational qualifications in different countries was created, and applicants for higher education support were interviewed about their education history. (See a related article, “New ‘Education Passport’ Is Tested in Greece”.)
The result was a portable record, the European Qualifications Passport for Refugees, that a student can use to apply to universities. A comparable scheme—Lebpass—has been introduced in Lebanon, to evaluate qualifications across a number of Lebanese universities.
Those who manage to get into university and graduate, have great difficulty getting employment in Lebanon. On the other hand, those who never get an education could be limiting themselves for the rest of their lives.
As Hana El-Ghali said at the start of the conference, “Education is the only thing refugees can take back home with them.”