Inside Syrian Schools: Building bridges for Syrian youth

This is the fifth in a series of blogs that look at the experiences of Syrian refugee children and their teachers.

As we observe World Refugee Day, it’s important to take note that 90 percent of Syrian youth between 15 to 24 years old in Lebanon are out of school. Advocacy messages continue to refer to these young people as a “lost generation,” robbed of their youth by war. However, in our research in Lebanon, we find Syrian youth relentlessly and passionately pursuing educational opportunities. This offers hope for what’s become a desperate situation, and by asking the right questions we can begin to piece together a path forward for these youth.

Nevertheless, multiple barriers impede Syrian youth from accessing higher education:

  • There are a limited number of spaces. As of 2015, there were 23 private universities and just one public university in Lebanon.
  • The average cost for attending a private university is $7000 per year; at the public university, the cost for a Lebanese student is approximately $300 per year, while Syrians pay nearly $650 per year to enroll.
  • Syrian youth often lack required documentation, including residency permits and previous school records.
  • Nearly all curriculums are in English or French, and most Syrian youth previously learned in Arabic.
  • Syrian youth are not allowed to work in the formal labor market in Lebanon, meaning there is no clear bridge from education to employment aside from the informal labor market of cafés, restaurants, hair salons, and construction.

Despite the challenges, several donors have created opportunities for higher education for Syrian youth in Lebanon. These range from traditional scholarships by local and international non-governmental organizations to attend formal, certified 3-4 year degree programs in Lebanese public and private universities to shorter skills-based diploma programs that are a few weeks long.

But what subjects should Syrian youth study?

While seemingly a simple question, the response has long-lasting implications on the aspirations, migration decisions, and futures of young people and their societies.

Donors are mostly unwilling to fund studies in medicine, pharmacy, architecture, and engineering given their long duration and expense. Some donors in Lebanon are hesitant to grant scholarships to Syrian students studying law, political science, and Arabic literature. The rationale is that these sectors are saturated in Lebanon and will not lead to jobs for Syrian students. On the other hand, a few donors do fund these studies, arguing they will be critical to rebuilding Syria.

Donors do agree that, ideally, decisions about what refugees should study must be dictated by the needs of the market. Yet, while donors and youth must make real-time decisions about their present needs, the future remains uncertain. At the same time, as a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff member in Lebanon said, “I’m more about what do we have now. We have apples; let’s make apple pies. I have students that are eager to learn. I will provide them as much opportunities as I can.”

Despite this optimism, creating opportunities is a challenge. Even UNHCR is only able to plan and budget for programs a year at a time. Further, even if there were an official market assessment to guide decisions around what youth should study, there would be little consensus on which economy to consider—the Syrian economy, the Lebanese economy, or both?

Lebanese policymakers in higher education work from the premise that refugee youth will eventually return to Syria. Yet, given no possibility of return in sight, they believe that education should not be driven by market needs. As one policymaker recently said in a higher education meeting, “It is more important to focus not on specialty but about leadership and how [higher education] prepare[s] the students for conflict resolution, to be humanitarian and non-violent.”

As donors and policymakers grapple with which economy to prioritize, youth make decisions daily about their studies. They consider both their visions of the future and their present realities. Ali (a pseudonym) studied medicine in Syria, but, given a bleak future in exile, he began studying public relations in Lebanon. This was only a stopgap endeavor, as he did not have money to continue these studies. “I was waiting for the real chance,” Ali said. “I don’t want to go by sea. I don’t want to stay in a camp for 6 months. To live as a refugee is hard in Lebanon and in other countries. I was waiting for the real chance—for a scholarship.” The scholarship available to him was to study architecture in Latin America; he took it.

The challenges influencing study decisions

First, there are the parameters placed on possible subject choices by donors.

Second, there are issues of language. At the Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public university, most courses are taught in English, which deters refugee youth from applying to them. Courses in law, political science, and Arabic literature are taught for, the most part, in Arabic, but some organizations are hesitant to fund such programs.

Third, Syrian youth seek out courses of study that allow them to work part time as well in the informal labor market. Fares (also a pseudonym), 23 and recently arrived in Lebanon, explained the need to work, “Study here in Lebanon? Without work? No! I don’t have a home. I don’t have money. I need work, and with work I will go to university and study.” The needs are not only for the young people’s own subsistence. As 27-year old Hamze (also a pseudonym) said, “I send money to my family because the situation in Syria is very bad…The first priority is my parents…They are old and they can’t work.”

Given uncertainty about the future, Syrian youth develop multiple plans. Hamze, for example, said that his first choice is “if war can calm down, I want to go back to Syria. It’s better to live there, and I know I will use my studies to improve my country. I want to build an institute for teaching languages and finance, in addition to computer programs.” At the same time, he is keen to begin learning German in any spare moments he has between working as a waiter and studying, on the off chance a scholarship might open up for him.

Three questions to guide decisions about what Syrian youth study

First, does the course allow youth to build skill sets that will be useful in both their host and home country? For instance, English language fluency remains a marketable skill not just in Lebanon, but will hold great value in the future in Syria during processes of reconstruction.

Second, does the course allow refugee youth to meet subsistence needs while studying? For example, some courses have flexibility so students can work to support their families. This is particularly relevant for donors that only fund youths’ tuition costs of their higher education and don’t fund youths’ subsistence needs.

Third, does the course link with real-life practical opportunities to apply the skills learned, despite labor market restrictions? As a staff member of UNHCR explained, “Maybe there are online opportunities for refugees to seek support and network beyond the Lebanese borders. Not illegally getting opportunities, but sometimes it’s within the Lebanese borders, or sometimes beyond that through the virtual network.” If every large organization in the Arab region, or globally, committed to virtually hiring and mentoring just one educated Syrian refugee youth, even if just as an intern, that would help in building stronger bridges for Syrian youth from education to work.

By asking these questions and identifying the challenges ahead, we can begin to find real education solutions that address the uncertainty of the future with lasting economic benefits for refugee youth and their host and home countries.