The lost generation

20th January 2012 at 00:00
One repercussion of the escalating troubles in Syria is that thousands of children are missing out on years of education. Joseph Dyke finds out what is being done to help them

Anas has the eyes of an insomniac. Hunched forward in his seat, the prominence of the dark bags that straddle his nose is striking, overshadowed only when he smiles and reveals his blackened teeth and gums. When he talks, those dark eyes look straight through you, his attention elsewhere, somewhere far darker.

One year ago, Anas, then 16, was a regular Syrian high school student, middle of the pack in most subjects but excelling in his favoured Arabic classes. Yet in early 2010, his life changed when his father Ismael began uploading videos of anti-Assad marches on to YouTube. Knowing he was a wanted man, Ismael went into hiding, but the regime took revenge on his children. Anas' brother Amar explains what happened to them.

"They came at 7 in the morning, about 20 gunmen. Mum came down and started shouting, 'Don't take my kids, don't take my kids!' They told her, 'If you open your mouth, we will kill you right now - go back in the house.' They held machine guns to us and made us walk in front of them until we reached a military post."

Amar is the eldest child but thin and bony, while Anas' bulky frame is reminiscent of a rugby forward, a fact Amar believes cost his brother. "They took him away because they figured I can't take punishment because I am small and Anas is big and could take good beatings. I told them, 'I want to wait for my brother here', but they said if I waited, they would kill me right there. A soldier took me home with a machine gun to my back."

Anas was taken to a Syrian jail on trumped-up charges, and tortured and humiliated for 17 days. "It was indescribable what they did to me," he says. "They used all kinds of torture and told me they would keep torturing me until my father gave himself in. They tried to pin a murder charge on me but they couldn't.

"I was a student in school and all of a sudden I found myself between murderers. I never stop thinking about it; it comes into my mind every day."

Eventually smuggled over the border into Lebanon, Amar and his four siblings had hoped to restart their education while waiting to return home, yet they have found little comfort in their new surroundings. Ismael took the two youngest children - 11-year-old Abdul-Malek and seven-year-old Moneera - to register at a local school in Tripoli, in the north of the country. They passed the entrance exam but the principal refused to take both because he claimed there was not enough space.

"I pleaded with him that they are brother and sister and are refugees, but he refused," Ismael says. "I got really angry and shouted, 'Damn Bashar al-Assad, damn the situation in Syria, this humiliation in Lebanon.' I tore up the papers and left. Now they don't go to school."

After tiring himself out tearing around the cramped living room like a trapped fly, Abdul-Malek admits that he misses education. "I just hang around the house all day long. I have Lebanese friends but I get upset when I see them going to school and I wait for them to come back to play with me."

The children are among thousands of Syrians whose educations have been wrecked by the ongoing turmoil in the country, with thousands fleeing to neighbouring Lebanon. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has registered more than 5,000 Syrians in Lebanon since the uprising began last April, of whom more than 1,500 are of school age. The majority are staying with Lebanese family or friends, but some are in horrible conditions - with 200 still sleeping in dark, abandoned schools.

The gargantuan task of ensuring that the children can continue their education despite the political turmoil has begun in earnest, albeit slowly. So far, only 465 have received support from the UN to continue their education in Lebanese state schools. These students have their school fees paid as well as their book and transport costs covered, but there are significant barriers to their achieving success in their new surroundings.

First, the Lebanese education system is far superior to the Syrian one, with children often several years ahead of their counterparts; Ismael admits it would be pointless Amar attending school in Lebanon as the 18-year-old would be put in a class with 12- or 13-year-olds. Yet there is a more fundamental issue, and it is one of language.

Race to catch up

While both Lebanon and Syria are Arabic-speaking countries, Syria's curriculum is taught only in Arabic while the more Europhile Lebanese teach in French, English and Arabic, depending upon the subject. Trying to catch up in science is difficult, but trying to do so when the class is in a language you don't understand is almost impossible.

The Badreyeh family arrived in Lebanon during Ramadan after the fighting in their home city of Hama became unbearable. Father Misyad had initially insisted on staying to look after his small car mechanics business, but one day he headed to work to discover it had been destroyed during the night's shelling.

In a cramped flat on the third floor of an innocuous tower block where the windows in the stairwell have long been without glass, the family huddle together on their mattresses on the floor. Twelve-year-old Reem has always enjoyed languages - in fact, English was one of her favourite subjects in Syria - yet she admits she is struggling to keep up. "It is very different here. Here is a better education than Syria but it is harder. I am finding it hard because I don't speak French or English," she says. The problem is so great that her mother is worried that all five of her children might fail their exams in the summer.

It's good to talk

About 300 of the children registered with the UN receive remedial classes to help them improve their languages. Four times a week they are given between two and three hours of help after school, with between eight and 10 children per teacher. The focus is not just on languages, as the teachers are also trained to look out for signs of trauma in the children, such as stealing, not joining in group games or breaking toys.

Ruba Khoury, Lebanon director of Save the Children Sweden - the charity carrying out the work - explains: "Because most of the children are staying in host families, they don't even have the space to study. In the classes they teach them how to study - they don't do their homework for them but they tell them how to understand the questions and if they need any additional support, they get it."

Yet these remedial classes can help only those whose parents register with the UN and it is estimated that there are thousands of refugees, such as Anas' family, who choose not to do so. One major reason for this is that there are continued fears that the pro-Syrian government in Beirut will leak their details back to Damascus.

Dana Sleiman from the UNHCR admits that this continues to be an issue. "Some people are scared. They are fleeing unrest and insecurity, and they are afraid that their names will be told to someone ... We repeatedly explain that our database is common with the government's higher relief commission and is completely confidential."

Yet more don't register because, like many refugees, they hold out too much hope that their troubles are coming to an end. Khoury believes that this could lead to thousands of Syrian children missing out on education altogether. "Most of the families think it will take only a couple of months, so they decide it is not worth going into a new system and sending their children to new schools. But the lesson we learned from Iraqi refugees (since the 2003 war) is that some of them have been here for three or four years. If the child arrives in Lebanon aged 6 or 7 and stays until 10 or 11 without going to school, then most probably they will not be involved in formal education again."

While a cessation in hostilities and a return of the refugees would solve many of the issues, there is little possibility of this in the near future with the violence in Syria escalating. The threat of a generation of uneducated Syrians looms, with thousands of children missing years of education. Khoury says she has even heard of Syrians risking their lives by smuggling themselves back into the country just to complete final exams.

Save the Children and UNHCR are developing plans to bridge the gap between the two systems to try to avert such a scenario. Under the plans, children who have studied half a year in one country and half in the other would receive some form of formal recognition to ensure that they don't need to retake the year when they eventually return. Yet any such agreement requires the acceptance of both the Lebanese and Syrian governments, and it is far from top of their priority lists. Yet in the absence of such a deal, Anas, Amar, Abdul-Malek and Moneera may become just small parts of a lost generation.

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