Hanane, 13, sat beside her mother in a cluster of multicolored tents strung together with rope, sheets, and tarp in Akkar, Lebanon. For the past year, with fuel prices skyrocketing across Lebanon, Hanane’s family has been unable to afford the cost of transportation to send her to school. “She wants to be a journalist,” said her mother as Hanane smiled shyly, clutching a large notebook. “She takes wonderful pictures.”
Hanane’s difficulties attending school are common within the refugee community in the country’s north. In 2019, refugees made up 36 percent of the population in Akkar, with 27.9 percent of Syrian refugee children aged 6 to 14 and 81.5 percent aged 15 to 17 being out of school. The economic collapse has hit the Akkar region hard: A study from 2021 found that nearly 60 percent of Lebanese households in Akkar are unable to afford education, healthcare, and nutritious food. Some refugee families have taken their children out of school to enter the workforce, opening another stream of income. “My son had to stop attending school because we needed the money,” said Um Ibrahim, whose 16-year-old son makes 5,000 Lebanese pounds (nearly $0.16) a day selling aluminum cans he finds on the street. “Maybe if we had some help, I could send him back to school.”
The Lebanese financial crisis has caused the Lebanese pound to lose 93 percent of its value on the parallel currency exchange market, placing refugees in a state of acute vulnerability. Child labor among Syrian refugees in Lebanon more than doubled in 2021 from 2019. There is also evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic and the simultaneous economic downturn is leading to rising rates of child marriage among Syrian refugees.
“Our previous strategy was to move away from relief work and focus more on education, development, and livelihoods,” said Yasmin Kayali, co-founder of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, a nonprofit that provides education programs and humanitarian support for refugees. “COVID-19, the financial crisis, and the other issues with Lebanon have moved us back into relief.”
Despite these conditions, most Syrian refugees living in Akkar are unwilling to return to their homeland, fearing violence, poverty, and conscription. As refugees and their host communities imagine their shared futures in Lebanon, the increasing number of out-of-school children looms in the background.
The struggle to get an education
Over a decade into their displacement, Syrian refugees have been struggling to get an education. At the outbreak of the war in Syria, the majority of refugee youth dropped out of school, leaving their homes in search of safety. Hanane’s family fled from Homs to Akkar in 2014, forcing her brother Hassan, now 21, to drop out of school. For Hassan’s generation, a UNESCO study from 2020 found that average literacy levels among Syrian refugees living in Lebanon ages 15 through 24 fail to meet minimum proficiency levels. Among all regions, the north of Lebanon received the lowest literacy score.
Practical, bureaucratic, and financial barriers often prevent Syrian refugees from directly joining Lebanese schools. The Syrian education system, once among the best in the Arab region, primarily uses Arabic language, while the Lebanese education system uses French and English to a greater extent. As a result, Lebanese students are comfortable being taught in English and French, while Syrian students are comfortable being taught in Arabic. In addition, most Syrian children in Lebanese public schools learn during a “second-shift,” an afternoon program launched in 2013 for refugee students. The second-shift approach has enabled the schools to maximize their capacity by teaching Lebanese students in the morning and Syrian students in the afternoon.
The UN and the Lebanese government have attempted to correct the course, rolling out several programs across the country to push refugee youth back into the classroom. To accommodate learning loss among children who have not been attending school for at least two years, the UN, in partnership with the government, launched the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) in 2016. The program is a requirement for out-of-school students ages 7 to 17 to enroll in Lebanese schools. It is based on the Lebanese curriculum and aims to condense several years of schooling into one year, enabling out-of-school children to catch up with their peers in the Lebanese educational system. The program aims to help them overcome learning loss, missed education, and language differences.
However, the ALP requirement to enroll in Lebanese schools has itself become a barrier to education for out-of-school children. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Lebanese government discontinued the program, leaving these children without a pathway to school, despite the reopening of schools after national lockdowns. Registration requirements further bar students from education, with the government requesting legal documents for older, secondary school students that can be difficult to obtain, such as proof of legal residency. At times, local school administrations impose their own regulations due to a lack of effective government oversight and general awareness of legal entry requirements.
“Nothing is standardized across different areas,” said Jenny Gebara, an education coordinator and advisor who has worked with nonprofits across Lebanon. “The ministry of education comes up with criteria for enrollment and informs the districts. The districts then inform the schools, but information is lost along each step.”
According to two UNICEF officials, the ministry of education frequently changes their requirements as the school year approaches, attempting to encourage more families to enroll in public schools by relaxing the requirements. However, the conflicting guidance has led to confusion among refugee families who struggle to navigate this bureaucratic maze.
In addition to these registration challenges, the cost of transportation also keeps children from attending school. The financial crisis in Lebanon hit fuel prices, especially after the government lifted subsidies in 2021, making it an even bigger obstacle than before. To overcome this hurdle, UNICEF launched a transportation stipend program in 2018 for refugee families to send their children to school, paying $20 per child per month. However, families like Hanane’s have reported difficulties applying and registering for the transportation program. During COVID-19 lockdowns, remote learning presented a new solution to avoid transportation spending, but the fuel crisis has exacerbated existing difficulties accessing stable and affordable electricity.
Closing the gap in education
As a new school year begins in the fall, the Lebanese government and INGOs can draw on several solutions. Local organizations across Lebanon have pioneered approaches to delivering education to refugee families. Rather than an exclusive focus on education, NGOs like Basmeh & Zeitooneh and Malaak provide additional services including food, transportation, and other support for families. Especially during COVID-19 school closures, these nonprofits led the development of remote learning programs, often delivered to students through WhatsApp. “We’ve had zero dropouts in the last two years,” said Asma Abou Ezzeddine Rasamny, the president and founder of Malaak.
However, the holistic approach to education is costly and donor fatigue is setting in. “Support is dwindling,” said Kayali of Basmeh & Zeitooneh. “There was an influx of support after the [Beirut port] explosion, but the attention is moving away from Lebanon, for both the refugee community and in general.”
Despite its cost, the holistic model is vital in light of the crises impacting Lebanon’s refugee communities. When aiming to enter the formal education system, refugee families like Hanane’s who are grappling with poverty cannot afford transportation costs to send their children to school, particularly if nearby schools are at capacity. While remote education represented an innovative option to address issues with transportation and public health, cuts to electricity and internet have rendered this modality unfeasible, with most areas in Lebanon receiving less than two hours of government-provided electricity per day.
The banking crisis in Lebanon has also left many grassroots organizations struggling for funding. “All of my money was in the bank in dollars. What I had was cut in half and the bank took half of it,” said Abou Ezzeddine Rasamny of Malaak. “We are exhausted.”
Policymakers are taking steps to address the funding challenges. In June 2022, the ministry of education launched the Transition Resilience Education Fund (TREF) with UNICEF, the European Union, and the German Development Bank, in addition to other contributors. One of the primary goals of the TREF will be to improve the efficiency of funds disbursements to schools and teachers, helping them improve learning outcomes, school attendance, and student performance.
Teachers’ salaries have dwindled in value amid rising inflation rates, frequently leading to strikes and closures. Accordingly, the TREF should prioritize paying teacher’s salaries, on par with inflation rates. Further, the TREF can aim to optimize school capacity and school locations to serve vulnerable communities, aligning donors, education centers, and communities.
“There is a lot of room to improve the strategic location of the school in comparison to the location of the refugee settlements,” said a UNICEF official. “If there’s an informal refugee settlement, we should try to have all of the schools around it included in the second-shift program.”
The government can also take steps to reduce the paperwork requirements to enroll in school. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have argued that the ministry of education should announce clear enrollment guidelines, enabling refugees to register for school without Lebanese residency permits, birth registration, Syrian government documents, or evidence of previous education.
In addition, education activists are advocating for an overhaul to the patchwork of programs designed to help Syrian students adapt to the Lebanese education system. With separate programs run by NGOs, the ministry of education, and formal schools, refugee families are lost in a maze of bureaucracy.
“Out-of-school Syrian refugees go through stages. This is where the challenge is,” said a UNICEF official. “They [the policymakers] aimed to create a pathway for out-of-school children to enter the formal education system. Instead, the system itself became a bottleneck.”
Instead of the patchwork of programs and certifications required for school enrollment, the ministry of education should work with NGOs to streamline a single point of entry for Syrian refugees. After enrollment, the ministry of education can pursue different placement testing and catch-up programs. However, the emphasis must remain on streamlining the path to enrollment for families, helping them get their children back into the classroom.
For many refugee families in Akkar, improving education is their top priority. “We want a future for our kids to learn,” said Abu Ibrahim, who lives in a refugee settlement near Minyara. “We don’t want them to work. We ran away for our kids—they are most important to us, but their future is gone.”
Zoe H. Robbin is an incoming Fulbright researcher based in Amman, where she specializes in women’s empowerment, governance, and education programs in the Arab region.
Zeid Qiblawi is a social researcher specializing in child protection and youth programming in the Arab region.