The Children of Refugees

Virtually every country in the world today makes educating its children a societal goal, and considers education essential in meeting national and individual aspirations. Educational philosophers, such as John Dewey and George Counts, argue that the primary purpose of education and schooling is not just to prepare students to live a useful life, but also to teach them how to live pragmatically and independently as participants in society. Today, however, there are unprecedented numbers of refugee children for whom education is at best inadequate and cursory. As refugee and resettlements camps become more overcrowded, some children receive no formal schooling, presaging a crisis of enormous magnitude. The reality of the Syrian refugee crisis is staggering. Syria is the world’s top source country of refugees. The UNHCR estimates that more than twenty percent of all refugees, or four million refugees, are Syrian, an increase of one million refugees in the last ten months. Another 7.6 million Syrians have been displaced within their own country. Together this represents the largest forced migration since World War Two. It is particularly alarming that over half of the four million Syrian refugees are children under eighteen years old. Syrian refugee children face particular educational challenges, as many of them were internally displaced before they became refugees., and thus have experienced multiple disruptions in their education.

Data indicates that as internal conflict has continued for so long, Syrian schools have failed to provide an adequate education to their children, even before they become refugees. From 2014 to 2015, for example, the number of students enrolled in basic and secondary schools within Syria decreased by 2 million, to 3.4 million. Syrian refugee children, then, never have the chance to develop societal values that promote social cohesion.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines a cohesive society as one that “works towards the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalization, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward mobility.” Societal well-being depends on schools’ success in conveying and embedding this premise in children. The OECD report asserts that societies lacking social cohesion “are unlikely to be sustainable.” Thus, the need for schools to promote social cohesion continues, even when schools are disrupted, closed, or destroyed, and arguably increases as school disruptions increase.

However, today, the children’s physical and geographic dislocations, the schools’ inability to maintain a permanent faculty, and the absence of out-of-classroom activities all inhibit refugee schools’ success in promoting social cohesion in dislocated and refugee children. This is equally true for both the refugee children living in camps in many different countries, as well as for those who remain displaced in Syria.

The physical condition of Syrian refugee children’s schools is disheartening. “External” refugees (those who have left Syria) are taught in makeshift structures, some just in tents or semi-enclosed facilities, and “internal” refugees (those displaced from their communities and living elsewhere in Syria) are taught in buildings severely damaged by fighting and bombing. 4,500 of Syria’s 22,000 schools have been destroyed or are no longer being used as schools.

Data also indicates that Syria ranks sixth of eight countries in the Middle East with a literacy rate of 84 percent in 2011, with continuing declines as the civil war continues. The deplorable physical condition of schools attended by the refugee children in Syria and abroad, as well as the relatively low literacy rate, indicates a barely functioning system that does not provide children with skills or prepares them for futures as members and participants in a socially cohesive society.

Given the precarious nature of their situations as refugees, these Syrian children particularly need schools that provide the structure for them to develop social cohesion. These schools should deliver the tripartite functions of teaching literacy, preparing individuals for sustained economic livelihood, and developing a commitment to the values of social cohesion that enable refugee children to live as productive members of society. Another essential component of social cohesion is self-regulation, and Syrian schools must teach self-regulation by instilling tolerance for differences, promoting cooperation, and fostering altruism.

The future of Syria and its citizens is uncertain. Budgets to support refugees in the countries where they now reside are strained, and education has often taken a backseat to health, housing, and subsistence. Without schools and a commitment to schools’ transformative potential to create cohesion, civility, and comity, Syrian refugee children will be unable to develop a future commitment “to a common objective.”

The international community must support both short and long term opportunities for refugee children. It must first provide financial support for schools in refugee camps and other areas in the short term. This financial support must go to train teachers, so educators are equipped to help refugee children make educationally effective transitions that sustain learning continuity throughout their journeys as refugees. In the longer term, the international community must assist, when feasible, in returning return refugee children to their home countries, as well as in creating opportunities to make them immigrants, not refugees, to countries that will accept them.

Beyond these imperatives, there must also be unified international initiatives to create effective schools for children currently living in refugee camps. A well-funded, worldwide effort with strong international political and humanitarian support to build and maintain such schools must be the immediate next step. By definition, refugee camps are meant to be temporary. Schools within such camps, though, must teach enduring content and values.