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Educating the Lost Generation

Omran Dagneesh caught the world’s attention. Dumbstruck in an ambulance van, bare feet hanging, he wiped at the blood staining his dusty face, unaware that, captured in a camera lens, another world watched him.

Omran is part of Syria’s developing Lost Generation, a term once popularized by Ernest Hemingway to describe the youths lost in the limbo of the Great War. Organizations and publications use this phrase today to describe the diminishing future of the Syrian refugee children.

Once children escape Syria and flee to neighboring countries, such as Jordan, their future often depends upon their access to education, particularly formal education, which is certified by the Ministry of Education. This certification allows for employment and broader social assimilation into the host nation. Thus, its absence devastates the prospects of the over 80,000 Syrian children who did not receive formal education in Jordan in 2015, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Before the start of the war, Syria had one of the highest primary school enrollment rates in the Middle East-North Africa region, at 93 percent. Today, HRW reports that more than one third of the school age population in Jordan does not attend school, and many more children are at a high risk of future non-attendance. This statistic is particularly relevant to the plight of Syrian children since, according to Amnesty International, Jordan hosts around 660,000 Syrians of the over 4.5 million displaced in the last five years. This amounts to one in 13 Jordanian residents and, of these refugees, one third are school age children.

Despite the mass movement of people in these past five years, the state of refugees within Jordan provokes a paradoxical sense of stagnation, emphasized with every photo of a young child sitting idly against the white tents of Zaatari refugee camp. As the camp steadily progresses into a permanent settlement, the desperate refugee situation likewise seems to become only more entrenched over time, creating a fear that children like Omran will remain perched on the ambulance seat, bereft of opportunities for advancement.

Betsy Fisher, Policy Director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, told The Politic that the Syrian refugee crisis is distinct from its Palestinian and Iraqi predecessors due to its urban character. For example, with the onset of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, Palestinians were sent to refugee camps. This concentration of refugees in one location allowed the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) for Palestinian Refugees to establish a separate school system that continues to support the education of over 500,000 Palestinian children today.

However, this refugee response is ineffective or even damaging when applied to the Jordanian situation. Mona Christopherson of the International Peace Institute elaborated on the subject in an interview with The Politic. While noting that the UNWRA was an effective solution in the 1948 Palestinian crisis, she said that in today’s Syrian refugee situation in Jordan: “I think that the UNWRA with separate organizations and separate schools has contributed to the refugee plight instead of solving it.”

There are several reasons for this, arising from the difference between the refugee crisis in Jordan and former refugee crises. “There are challenges whether you have refugees in cities or if you have them in camps, but just the nature of the urban refugee crisis has impacted the delivery of a lot of services,” Fisher said.

The scattered geographical distribution of refugees hinders the efficiency with which organizations can provide refugee services. Urban settings further complicate the situation, as social programs service vulnerable Jordanian citizens as well. The potential for geographic expansion arises mostly from the fact that, after Syrian refugees arrive to a refugee camp, a Jordanian relative or sponsor can “bail them out.” In such a situation, the refugees receive a service card that allows them to leave the camps and utilize public resources across the country, resources that include school and healthcare.

The possibility to enroll in the Jordanian public school systems offers refugee children an opportunity to integrate into their adopted society. However, psychosocial and educational needs specific to refugee children often interfere with the integration process. Such problems challenge and sometimes override the constructive power of physical integration in schools, leading many to wonder if the existing school system in Jordan can save a dying generation.

Administrative obstacles also pose a challenge, sometimes limiting access to education for a significant segment of the refugee population. In 2015, the government ordered all Syrians outside of camps to take part in the “ Urban Verification Exercise.” This project made the procurement of service cards (and their accompanying subsidized public medical care and education) dependent on identification documents.

In addition to the Urban Verification Exercise, the Ministry of Education issued a “three year rule” preventing any Syrian or Jordanian child from enrolling in formal schooling if they are more than three years older than their grade level. With the clock of the Syrian civil war now ticking to over five and half years, this rule impacts many incoming refugees.

In an interview with The Politic, Phuong Nguyen, Chief of Education at UNICEF Amman, said that in spite of such policies, the greatest obstacle remains the infrastructural capacity to absorb refugee students.

“The Jordanian education system was clearly not prepared to accept so many children…there is a large portion of the population who do not have any education opportunities because the existing host communities are not able to accommodate all the children,” she said.

The limitations of the existing infrastructure lead many schools to operate on a double-shift system, an arrangement whereby children, divided into refugee and non-refugee populations, attend school either during a day shift or an evening shift. While this strategy eases the problem of overcrowding and reduces the cost per student, the decreased lesson time tends to deteriorate the quality of education.

Christopherson agreed with Nguyen on the Jordanian education system’s inability to accept higher numbers of refugee children. “Although a lot of effort has been done by the Jordanian government to increase the capacity, like double shift, the assistance to refugees is underfunded, and they don’t have enough funding to really build the capacity needed to include all youth in school,” said Christopherson.

She added that schools’ capacity to expand relies on the help of foreign donors. Unfortunately, in February 2016, the World Bank calculated the cost of hosting Syrian refugees in Jordan at 2.5 billion dollars per year; foreign donors have only pledged to give 700 million dollars per year for the next three years.

Due to these inequities, the current education system excludes many children. However, even those who can access the system often struggle as a consequence of the social dynamics. HRW reported a steady increase in the occurrence of bullying and corporal punishment in public schools, with bullying accounting for over 1600 dropouts in 2016 alone. The pressure on both human and physical resources arguably spikes Jordan’s existing record of corporal punishment in schools as teachers, untrained to manage the psychological and educational disabilities of refugee children, start to lash out. One such report, issued by UNICEF, followed the case of a twelve year old girl by the name of Ayat. She dropped out of school due to repeated humiliation by her peers and her teachers.

The terrors of war leave scars on the psyche of many young children who witnessed moments of death in Syria. The need for programs addressing these psychosocial needs is paramount and public schools often fail to provide this attention due to financial and physical limitations. UNICEF also documented the story of Marah, a Syrian refugee who developed a debilitating social anxiety during her time in Syria, leading her to lose control around other children in her Jordanian classrooms. She eventually dropped out due to psychological distress.

For the reasons described above, formal education often fails in its effort to open the door to Syria’s Lost Generation. Non-formal education, though unable to provide the certification necessary for employment, functions both as a substitute and a supplement to formal education. Concentrated in camp communities, NGOs direct schools for children unable to enroll in public schools. Most non-formal education relies on positive, cross-community interactions, with Jordanians trained to act as mentors and teachers for the refugee population.

In addition to addressing academic needs, non-formal education often offers psychosocial services, illustrated by the support the UNICEF-directed MAKANI Project lent to Ayat and Marah. Both girls returned to school as a result. Today, Ayat hopes to become a teacher, in order to prevent the classroom humiliation of other children.

“We find that through the MAKANI center, children are much more responsive and through social support we train teachers and facilitators who are able to work with children who may be less communicative,” said Nguyen, who works with the MAKANI Project. “Learning to be able to speak about their issues through art therapy, therapy through theatre and through the various activities, they are able to engage again.”

Regardless of the successes of particular NGOs, non-formal education cannot provide the certification crucial for participation in the labor market. As a result, both non-formal and formal education fall short of fulfilling the needs of refugee children.

The Lost Generation live in the void left by inadequacies of non-formal and formal education, as creative energies, talent, and intellectual curiosity fall victim to an inundated, exhausted system.

“Youths and adolescents have so much energy and so much potential, and this energy can go in the negative direction,” Nguyen said.

Past experiences of horrific violence coupled with present stagnation can result in a dangerous environment, where refugee children are easy pickings for radicalization by terror groups.

“When young people have nothing to do, and they cannot see any future, despite many of them wanting to continue education, but that is not available and work is not available…radicalization is an issue, and we know that there has been recruitment of children from Zataari by armed groups in Syria,” said Christophersen.

In light of these fears and the humanitarian crisis presented by, among other things, the lack of access to a fundamental human right–education–NGOs and the Jordanian government are working in tandem to support the expansion of the formal education system and the development of further nonformal education programs.

After all, children are not static. Lives are not stagnant, not numbers and statistics, but constantly evolving and adapting. The fates of Omran’s compatriots lie in the education opportunities proffered by the countries who receive them, so that a child’s paralysis in an ambulance does not translate to a paralysis of his future.