Once Syria prided itself on the quality of its education. Primary school enrolment was 97 percent, two-thirds of children went on to secondary school and literacy rates surpassed the regional average.
“Teachers would even accompany nomadic communities on their travels. We were one of the most advanced countries in the Middle East,” said Caritas Syria President Msgr Antoine Audo.
That has all been wiped away in three years of fighting. “The war has put us back years,” he said.
There are today 4.8 million Syrian children of school age. Inside Syria, 2.2 million of them are not in school. More than half a million children, refugees in other countries, don’t go to school.
“Going to school requires some level of stability,” said Msgr Audo.
A fifth of schools in Syria are unfit for use, either too badly damaged or being used for shelter for the displaced. Fear of kidnapping or violence means many parents keep their children at home.
For the poor families suffering from the economic collapse, their children must work, begging or selling goods on the street, or involved in crime.
In Aleppo, Caritas Syria is helping 2,300 students with fees and transportation so they can go to school or university. “The needs far exceed our possibility to help,” said Msgr Audo.
In the countries with Syrian refugees, the challenges in providing an education are different but also difficult.
“We had a home and settled life. Our children, Khaled, Muhammed, Amal and Lana, went each day to school,” said Fawaz, a refugee from Damascus now in Jordan.
Fawaz isn’t allowed to work in Jordan. He says can only just cover the rent and can’t afford to send the children to school.
In 2012, a Caritas Jordan survey found only 56 percent of students were enrolled in school.
“With more Syrians coming, it is clear that our school system in Jordan was not built to cope,” said Laith Bshart, Caritas Jordan Emergency Project Officer.
There are also major obstacles for Syrian children wishing to attend public school in Jordan.
Children need to be registered but this isn’t possible if they and their parents have entered the country illegally. There is no money for transport and other basics like books.
“And there is also fear about whether they will integrate into the system here – some children have faced harassment in schools so their parents have stopped them from going,” said Laith Bshart.
Caritas Jordan is scaling up its work. One of its key focuses is pre-school, as Syrian refugees don’t have the opportunity to be enrolled into kindergartens. The toddlers received formal education, learn alphabets and shapes. There is story-telling, dances, songs and poems.
For older children, there are orientation sessions, ‘back to school’ nights, graduation ceremonies and field trips in the summer. It’s part of creating a normal pattern. It also allows Caritas staff to deliver positive messages around peace.
Thirteen year old Farah fled with her mother and sister from Syria to Lebanon. They now live in Tripoli in a small apartment with little means of support.
Farah has learning difficulties, suffers from a liver disease that has left her smaller than most girls her age, has unnatural curvature of the back and walks with difficulty.
Her family must pay $300 to import special medicine from Sweden. That, with the rent for their tiny flat, meant the family couldn’t afford to send the girl to school.
A Caritas social worker found out about her case and helped Farah to go to school, helped with tuition fees, school kit and transport. Farah is overjoyed to be attending El Samakiah public school.
Farah is one of the lucky ones to receive an education. Lebanon has over a million Syrian refugees, half of them children and about 90 percent don’t go to school.
Poverty is one factor, though for Mirella Chekrallah, Head of Education Department for Caritas Lebanon Migrant Centre, it isn’t the deciding one.
“Syrians put a very high priority on education. Parents will go without food so they can send their children to school,” she said.
Enrolling Syrian children in Lebanese schools used to be very hard. However, the Lebanese government has started to allow double shifts in primary schools since January, meaning refugee children can attend the second shift in some schools.
Caritas Lebanon is one of the only organisations providing access for Syrian children in formal education. Syrian outreach workers identify the children and Caritas ensures they are enrolled in school and have the uniforms, books and transportation to attend.
The system does have drawbacks: it’s costly and the Syrian children don’t get to mix with their Lebanese peers in the afternoon shift. But with good news thin on the ground, Caritas helping 65,000 children go to school is something to celebrate.
Caritas Lebanon also provides schooling for 1000 children with learning difficulties and puts on ‘Accelerated Learning Programmes’ for children outside formal education.
“It’s amazing how quickly the children catch up,” said Mirella Chekrallah. “Education is so easy to realise, if only we had more resources to meet all the children’s needs.”
Including the work of Caritas, the Catholic Church has spent $17 million on education programmes for Syrian children in the last 3 years.
With no end in sight to the crisis in Syria, Caritas will continue working to ensure a generation doesn’t lose its chance to learn.
“Without education, there will be a rise in poverty, fanaticism and crime. We must rebuild Syria and this begins with education,” said Msgr Audo of Caritas Syria.