The pandemic has upended education for many children in Lebanon. But for Syrian refugees, it’s even worse.
Amid a series of crises in Lebanon — mass anti-government protests, an economic meltdown, a major explosion — Syrian children and their families continue to struggle with limited resources, support and access when it comes to learning.
For the past 10 years, Daad Hasan Ammer and her family have lived in a tent on the border between Syria and Lebanon.
The family was forced out of their home in Homs, Syria, back in 2011, Ammer told The World over a WhatsApp call.
“Fighting broke out,” she recalled, “planes started bombing left and right.”
Related: Fighting in Syria has subsided. But refugees in Lebanon still hesitate to return home
Her family had no choice but to leave.
For a while, they moved around inside Syria. But eventually, they made it to Arsal, a town in Lebanon along the border with Syria. That’s where they have been ever since.
Ammer gave birth to two more daughters in Arsal, and now she has four children between the ages of 7 and 16. The kids used to go to an education center in the camp run by a nongovernmental organization, but it closed down because of the pandemic.
Related: After Trump’s ban, Lebanon renews calls to send back Syrian refugees
For the past few months, Ammer's children have been getting lessons over WhatsApp.
The problem is that the family only has one cell phone.
Four kids, one cell phone.
Marwa, 11, said sometimes homework assignments come all at once. So, she and her sisters have to take turns. It’s tough, she said, but she loves learning. Her favorite subjects are English, Arabic, math and science.
Ammer said that they initially had trouble connecting to internet services, but then she managed to save up money to buy a router.
That was a big sacrifice, Ammer said, because money is tight. After separating from her husband, Ammer became the sole breadwinner of the family. She gets some financial help from the United Nations Refugee Agency, she said, but she struggles.
“Education over food. That’s how important it is for me that my daughters get an education."
“Education over food. That’s how important it is for me that my daughters get an education,” Ammer said.
Dima Soughayyar, an education adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said it’s not ideal for Syrian children to be using their parents’ phones for school.
“It’s sometimes difficult to have children submit their homework at a certain time or just for us to contact the children at a certain time,” she said, “because many parents work throughout the day.”
So, her team adjusted homework hours to later in the day, when there is a better chance that the parents are back from work.
Related: What’s the US doing to help the Syrian refugees?
A recent statement by Human Rights Watch said school closures and the financial downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have harmed Syrian refugee children’s education in all refugee-hosting countries.
But it went on to say that in Lebanon, “learning is in free fall.”
Related: Lebanon’s ‘two crises’: coronavirus and financial collapse
Lebanon is home to 660,000 school-age Syrian children, many of whom can attend public schools, but only after regular hours.
“The stark reality is that even before the coronavirus hit, more than 55% of Syrian kids in Lebanon were not even going to school,” said Bill Van Esveld, with the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch.
“And since the coronavirus hit, even the ones who were supposedly formally registered and enrolled in school really haven’t been going and haven’t been getting anything for well over a year now," he said.
Under Lebanese laws, Syrians are treated as temporary migrants, not refugees or permanent residents, explained Hana el-Ghali, an education expert in Lebanon.
Related: Lebanon banned all protests after Syrians called for better refugee conditions
“Being a refugee by itself provides a lot of vulnerability, and being a refugee in a country that does not recognize you as a refugee adds to that vulnerability."
“Being a refugee by itself provides a lot of vulnerability, and being a refugee in a country that does not recognize you as a refugee adds to that vulnerability,” she said.
Ghali said that the majority of Syrian children in Lebanon used to attend public schools. They took the afternoon, second or third shifts. But as the economy worsened, Ghali added, more Lebanese families started to send their kids to public schools, because they couldn’t afford private school tuition.
That only added to the strain on the public school system. Ghali expects to see even more Lebanese children move to public schools.
International NGOs have been helping Lebanon since it was hit with several crises.
For example, in 2018, the UN donated 8,000 laptops to Lebanon. But the Ministry of Education didn’t have licenses to run Microsoft Word on them. So, two Lebanese companies agreed to store the laptops until the problem was solved.
Of the laptops, 2,400 were stored at the port, the company in charge claimed. And then, the Beirut explosion happened.
“The minister of education goes on a tour to check out where the laptops are,” said Van Esveld of Human Rights Watch, “and the company that was responsible for storing them in the port says ‘it’s a tragedy but they were all blown up in the explosion.’”
Fast forward six months and the acting Minister of Education Tarek al-Majzoub revealed in a TV interview that, in fact, the laptops were not blown up. They were sold for profit.
The minister said the matter is under investigation. Lebanon’s Ministry of Education didn’t respond to requests for comments for this story.
Syrian children in Lebanon have already lost years of schooling because of displacement and war, said Bill Van Esveld. They can’t afford to lose more.
“These children are being robbed of their futures every single day,” Van Esveld said. “How do you have rights? How do you participate in your society? How do you try to build a stable, safe life if you can’t read? If you are innumerate?”
Despite all the challenges, Marwa and her sisters said they are determined to keep up with their schoolwork.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the NRC. It has been updated.
Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.