Catching up: Zeinab al Awad, a Syrian refugee, battled difficulties such as faltering internet access to achieve exam success
Catching up: Zeinab al Awad, a Syrian refugee, battled difficulties such as faltering internet access to achieve exam success © João Sousa for the FT

Like many students around the world during the Covid-19 school closures, Zeinab al Awad struggled to keep up with online classes. But in Lebanon, where the 18-year-old Syrian refugee finished her final year of secondary school this summer, there were further challenges, including chronic electricity shortages and internet failures.

“Sometimes the internet would cut out for a whole day and I would have to go back the next day and watch the recording and ask the teachers about it,” Awad explained back in the spring.

Despite the difficulties, she was preparing to sit her graduation exam and apply for a scholarship to the American University of Beirut. Awad’s ambition is to become a doctor to “help those in need and go back to rebuild my country as it was . . . and to support my parents and give them a good life and allow my [younger] siblings to continue their education”.

Awad’s success so far is rare among Syrian refugees in the region, particularly in Lebanon, the country with the most refugees per capita in the world. And it is particularly unusual in the pandemic. Most of her Syrian classmates have dropped out one by one — to work, like her older brother, or to marry, as some of her school friends did aged 14 or 15. Others left because of problems accessing online classes. Many will not return when schools reopen — if they reopen, given Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis, which has led to increasingly severe shortages of fuel and electricity.

Zeinab al Awad: ‘My intention is to continue and become a doctor . . . and go back to rebuild my country as it was’
Zeinab al Awad dreams of going to university and becoming a doctor © João Sousa for the FT

Hasan Nabulsi, a spokesman for the Middle East and north Africa office of the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef), says that, before the pandemic, some 750,000 school-age Syrian refugee children were out of school across the region and another 2.4m children were out of school in Syria. Reasons include economic pressures, lack of space in local school systems, security concerns and bureaucratic hurdles to registering.

Lebanon was in political and economic crisis before the pandemic. The Lebanese pound has dropped more than 90 per cent against the US dollar since October 2019, and the UN has reported that 89 per cent of Syrian refugees in the country are living in extreme poverty. Last August, a warehouse explosion in Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people, wounded thousands and damaged large swaths of the city, including schools.

“It would be very difficult to disentangle Covid-19 from the other crises . . . in Lebanon,” says Nathalie Lahire, a senior economist at the World Bank working on education in the Middle East and Northern Africa. “However, the combined effects on learning loss are significant.”

Across the region, about 55 per cent of students who were enrolled in school before the Covid pandemic hit have had access to distance learning, Unicef reported in November. In Lebanon, the education ministry said the proportion of students able to take part in remote learning was about 50 per cent. Online learning tools had been little used in Lebanon before the pandemic, particularly in state schools.

While remote study has been effective in some cases, Lahire adds that the results have been “mixed”, with more than 20 per cent of state schools in Lebanon having no access to any form of online learning.

For refugees, the problems have been more acute. Last year’s UN vulnerability report found that only 17 per cent of Syrian children aged six to 14 in 4,563 households in Lebanon had been able to take part in remote classes. While some Syrian children were enrolled in classes alongside Lebanese students, most attended “second shift” afternoon classes that were held after the regular sessions — a programme that was launched in 2013 with international funding. However, online classes for many “second shift” students were suspended altogether because of a strike by teachers over unpaid wages.

Syrian siblings outside their tent at a refugee camp in the Lebanese town of Aarsal
Syrian siblings outside their tent at a refugee camp in the Lebanese town of Aarsal © Marwan Naamani/Alamy

Meanwhile, school closures also led to the suspension of a special accelerated learning programme that is currently the only way for Syrian children who have been out of school for several years to enrol.

More than a year into the pandemic, the education ministry has yet to release an official distance-learning plan, although a draft has been circulated. Lahire says this offered some promising strategies, particularly in the use of technology, for schools that are lagging behind. Ministry officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Problems of access appear to be reducing enrolment rates among refugees. There were some 190,600 Syrian children registered in Lebanese state primary schools in 2020-21, down from 196,238 in 2019-20, which was already below the 206,061 the year before. Only about 6,400 Syrian students are enrolled in secondary schools.

Souad Kadi, a refugee from Idlib living in the Baalbek area on Lebanon’s eastern border, says her daughter, Nuha, 13, is among those who have fallen through the cracks. Nuha used to attend school in a neighbouring village but stopped two years ago because the family could not afford transport. With schools closed, that is no longer an issue, but Nuha has been unable to join online classes because the family has no internet access. “She told me this year many times that when the school isn’t online, she wants to go back,” Kadi says, “She cried a lot when she stopped school. She wants to go to school and learn, but the situation is what it is.”

For some Syrians who have been unable to enrol in school or have struggled with the curriculum, supplemental programmes run by non-governmental organisations, along with informal initiatives, have kept them in education.

When refugee student Awad first came to Lebanon at the age of eight, her parents were able to enrol her in school in Bqarzla, the village in northern Lebanon where they settled to work in the olive orchards. But, like most children from Syria, Awad struggled because she did not know the Latin alphabet or French — the school’s main language of instruction.

Fortunately, a small NGO called Relief & Reconciliation for Syria had opened a centre in the village, where volunteers provided after-hours help with homework and remedial French lessons, along with Pauline Semaan Abboud, a Lebanese French teacher at the village school. During the school closures, Abboud has continued to tutor via WhatsApp.

Unicef’s Nabulsi says such programmes are important in filling the gaps in national education systems. But he believes national authorities and international organisations need to work to strengthen teachers’ capacity in formal school systems and to develop lessons learnt in the pandemic, including addressing the digital divide.

“It’s an opportunity now to invest in digital learning and to increase and improve the access of children to these resources,” he says, adding that this could include radio and television. These tools can “complement and support teachers, even after the Covid-19 pandemic, and can support learning at home”.

Pauline Semaan Abboud of Peace & Reconciliation for Syria, who teaches and supports refugee students in Zeinab’s village
Pauline Semaan Abboud of Peace & Reconciliation for Syria, who teaches and supports refugee students in Zeinab’s village © João Sousa for the FT

However, investing more in education for refugee children — particularly in potentially costly programmes to increase access to digital devices and the internet — may be an uphill struggle at a time of donor fatigue. At last month’s fifth annual Brussels Conference to raise funds for the response to the Syrian crisis, international donors pledged €5.3bn — some €1.6bn less than last year, which was already down on the year before.

Despite the many competing priorities in the region and beyond in the aftermath of the pandemic, Nabulsi says the international community should not lose sight of the refugee students who are at risk of being left behind.

The situation is particularly dire in Lebanon, where a recent UN appeal for emergency international aid noted: “The compounding factors of economic collapse, the inability to pay teachers, transportation costs [or for] fuel to keep the lights on, availability of supplies, space, and the pandemic threaten to overwhelm the ministry’s capacity to open schools in the upcoming school year.”

Nabulsi says: “These children will be a lost generation unless they’re given the education and unless they’re supported — and they deserve this support.”

Awad, meanwhile, passed her graduation exam, but her success has been bittersweet: she did not receive the hoped-for scholarship to the private American University of Beirut. She is now planning to enrol at the college of sciences at the public Lebanese University in Beirut, with the aim of training as a doctor later, though that may be beyond her family’s financial reach.

“It’s always been my dream to go to university and graduate and become what I want to be,” she says. “But now I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

This story has been updated since its original publication

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