At summer school, Iraqi refugees in Syria try to catch up

Displaced by war, children of Iraqi refugees enter ambitious programs to help compensate for missed school and the mental stresses of war. But Iraqi enrollment in Syrian schools has dropped 30 percent in the past year.

Sarah Birke
Iraqi boys study math at the Sabaa school in Damascus, Syria. Many refugee families have been unable to keep their children in school because they are needed to earn money.

As Iraq struggles to bolster its fledgling post-war economy, some of the young Iraqis upon whom its success will depend are falling behind.

In Syria, which has absorbed the majority of Iraqi refugees, educational difficulties have become widespread. On top of the mental stresses and missed classes due to war, Iraqi students here face long commutes to schools that can accommodate them and pressing financial needs that pull them out of school to earn money for their families.

"The danger is a generation of Iraqi children ill-equipped to participate in the economy of their country," says Sherazade Boualia, the head of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) office in Syria, which spends $6 million on its education initiative. "It is also fertile ground for exploitation, early marriage, and poverty."

Summer classes

At the brightly painted Sabaa school in Sayda Zeinab, a suburb of Damascus, Tamara al-Shaker has spent her summer taking catch-up classes. An 18-year-old Iraqi refugee, Ms. Shaker had to repeat a year of school after her education in Iraq was disrupted by the sectarian violence that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.

The summer classes Shaker is taking are part of multiple efforts to improve access to education by the Syrian government, UNICEF, and the European Union. These groups are also funding vocational training centers and training teachers in the specific needs of the Iraqi community. Such efforts, advocates say, are necessary to the future prosperity of Iraq.

But the challenges are numerous. Amina Mezaal, Sabaa's headmistress, says she has seen many of her Iraqi students drop out in the past two years. Enrollment among Iraqi children in Syrian schools has dropped 30 percent since last year, according to Elizabeth Campbell of Refugees International, a US-based advocacy organization, and many of those students who do attend show up irregularly.

Why kids are sent to work instead of to school

While Jordan has also opened its borders – and schools – to refugees, Syria in particular is struggling.

"The needs in Syria are greatest as the majority of the Iraqi refugee community lives there. They also tend to be from a lower economic class." says Ms. Campbell. "There is often a need for children to work or the family can't afford basic costs such as books and uniforms," she adds.

Many refugees, who are not allowed to work legally in Syria, are relying on now-depleted savings and remittances. "To be successful, the needs of the entire family must be met," says Campbell.

Then there are the individual needs of the students, many of whom have had irregular or patchy schooling in recent years. "We have to try to find a common knowledge and work from there," says math teacher Ali Shaa. "It can be slow."

Gailan Rashid, a 16-year-old who has missed five years of school in order to work in a textiles factory, is now attending evening classes once a week. He hopes this may be the first step on the road to becoming an engineer. Shaker says she hopes to get the grades to go to university.

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