Bringing kids back to class

Big efforts to enrol more refugee children into school are being made in Lebanon by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). 286,000 Syrian children are missing out on learning in the Middle Eastern country, which has taken in more than 1,5 millioner Syrian refugees.

Text and photo: Hanne Eide Andersen

Activity is hectic at the council’s office in Tyre, which operates educational programmes for refugee youngsters throughout southern Lebanon.

“An increased commitment from the Lebanese authorities has boosted the number of displaced children in school a lot over the past two years,” reports Aline Sfeir, the council’s education manager in this area.

“This rise, from 27,000 in 2012 to more than 200,000 now, is gratifying, but 286,000 Syrian children are still excluded from the education system here.”

NRC’s education specialist Aline Sfeir, education officer Souheil Deeb and special adviser Constantijn Wouters.  

1,5 million Syrian refugees

This small country, which covers less than 10,500 square kilometres, is  accommodating a huge influx of Syrian refugees.

Their numbers have been added to more than 300,000 Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in 1948 and their descendants.
Several factors explain why the recently arrived children are struggling to attend school. They include a lack of capacity in the public system, which means many are not able to registered for classes.

Another key reason is that refugee Syrians became extremely poor during almost seven years of fighting. A lot have been living in exile for several years.

“Many families see no other alternative than to put their children to work,” explains Constantijn Wouters, programme manager for education at the council’s Lebanon office.

Child labour has increased among Syrian refugees in the country during recent years. The same also applies to early marriage.

Awareness session with Syrian refugee families. All the parents have children who are not attending school. Yhey express great concern for the future of their children. Many do not dare to return to Syria or have nothing to go back to. Some have lost their spouse to the fighting. Their rights to basic services like health and education are limited in Lebanon.


Other factors include long distances to school and lack of money for transport. A lot of the children also have problems with the Lebanese curriculum, which differs from the one in Syria.

“A further challenge is that much of the teaching in Lebanon’s public schools takes place in English and French,” says Wouters, and points out that most of the refugees speak only Arabic.

Many of their children therefore need tailored courses, which is what the council and other organisations are providing in collaboration with the Lebanese government.

Overwhelmed capacity

Demand for places in the public school system has overwhelmed existing capacity. In addition to the Syrians, many Palestinian refugee  children drop out of class as well, especially at the secondary level.

As a result, more than a hundred of the schools are operating a two-shift system on a daily basis in a bid to accommodate as many pupils as possible.

“In addition to preparing children for enrolment in the public school system and providing vocational training for youth and school rehabilitation, we’re paying regular visits to refugee families in order to identify their needs,” says Sfeir.

“This allows us to talk with parents about what is preventing them sending their children to school, so that we can make the best possible arrangements.”

Stylist class at NRC’s vocational training programme for youth. 

Psychosocial support

Psychosocial support plays a key role in the council’s educational programmes, says Wouters, and notes that their war experiences have left many refugee children with mental health problems.

“Their life in Lebanon is also a tough one. Many of them have to work, they live in uncertainty and often in poor accommodation. The same goes for the Palestinian refugee children we work with.”

563 students

The Kavli Trust has contributed NOK 1 million to this work, which involves the council engaging with a number of local partners to identify children at high risk of dropping out of school.

These partners include the Ministry of Education, school head teachers, refugee and host-communities and local authorities.

A total of 563 refugee youngsters were identified and recruited to the council’s specially tailored education programme with support from the trust.

These children got places in the council’s supplementary classes to prepare them for enrolment in the public school system, which focus on basic subjects such as English, maths and Arabic and which also provide psychosocial support.

The aim of the parents awareness session is to identify what parents consider the biggest obstacles to school attendance for their children.

Teacher training

Funds from the trust have also ensured the training of 22 teachers as well as awareness sessions with 400 parents, asking parents what they need and want, but also to explain the importance of education, how to enrol in the public system, and to explain to them the rights they have as a refugee.

“The project has since been carried forward with other donor funds,” reports Sfeir. “All 563 of the pupils completed the school year.”

NRC’s youth education programme is teaching refugee children various crafts and how to be beauticians and barbers. 

The classrooms at the Norwegian Refugee Council’s vocational training centre are full of life. “Youth is the biggest group outside school at the moment,” explains Aline Sfeir. “Eighty per cent of those aged 15 to 18 aren’t attending. They need something to do and an opportunity to make a living, even if they haven’t been able to get an education.” 

Most of the Syrian parents say that the lack of school provision where they live is the reason for keeping their children away. The journey to the available classes is too dangerous or too long, or they lack money for transport. But they all want their children to get an education if only the opportunity is good and available.