The Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH) is a local non-profit, non-partisan Lebanese human rights organization in Beirut that was established by the Franco-Lebanese Movement SOLIDA (Support for Lebanese Detained Arbitrarily) in 2006. SOLIDA has been active since 1996 in the struggle against arbitrary detention, enforced disappearance and the impunity of those perpetrating gross human violations.

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June 1, 2015

The Daily Star - Ministry steps up bid to integrate refugees into schools, 01 June, 2015

Alexis Lai

In classrooms in Sin al-Fil High School Sunday, children sat in groups of two in orderly rows of desks, wearing bright T-shirts and pigtails, some chitchatting, others huddled with a pencil over a test.

While it looked as if ordinary classes were in session, the hundreds of children and teenagers gathered had been out of school, some even for several years, since fleeing war in Syria and Iraq.

In an effort to integrate more school-aged refugees into Lebanon’s formal public education system, the Education Ministry held a third round of placement tests Sunday. Test takers were divided into three age groups (under 9, 9-12, and 13-17) and given four written tests evaluating their skills in math, science, the Arabic language, and foreign languages (either English or French.)

There are nearly 400,000 school-aged (ages 5-17) Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to UNHCR estimates. Public schools currently accommodate around 105,000 non-Lebanese students in Grades 1-9, of which nearly 100,000 are Syrian, says Sonia Khoury, who directs the project management unit implementing the ministry’s Reaching All Children With Education project.

In one classroom, 6-year-old Joanna from Syria, wearing a hot pink headband with a large flower, was sobbing as she looked at the test paper in Arabic. She told The Daily Star she was “scared” as she did not know how to read.

Seated behind her, 6-year-old Sandra from Baghdad was also in tears over the test. Both girls, however, said they wanted to attend school. Most other students were calm, though equally confused, at the questions before them.

“It was so hard that I couldn’t finish half of it,” said 11-year-old Yousuf from Qaraqosh in a classroom down the hallway.

The Daily Star observed that test papers in classrooms across three schools were mostly left blank, occasionally with confused answers. For example, faced with the question, “My name is _____,” one student printed out the Roman alphabet.

At a classroom in a school in the Beirut southern suburb of Shiyyah, 14-year-old Hussein from Aleppo said he had been in Lebanon for a year. He was unable to answer any questions on his English test paper.

Nine-year-old Yazan from Idlib said he had never attended school in his life. Students seated around him were unable to answer basic math questions, such as writing out “seventy-six” in numerals or adding the numbers 35 and 50 together.

Anticipating that refugees had likely fallen behind in their schooling, the tests contained material from Grade 1 to the grade appropriate for their age, in order to capture their actual level.

While mostly Syrians sat for the tests, one of the schoolteachers hired as a proctor, Souad Madi, told The Daily Star that the skills of Iraqi refugees seemed much poorer, perhaps because the conflict in Iraq has gone on longer. She added that many of the Iraqi Christian children were capable only in their local language of Syriac Aramaic.

Around 6,000 placement tests were graded in previous rounds, and the ministry has funding from UNICEF to put 10,000 refugees through the Accelerated Learning Program, a new four-month program to prepare out-of-school children to enter formal education when the new school year begins in October.

ALP prepares children for a single grade; for example, a child who took ALP at Level 1 would be ready to begin Grade 1 in public school, Khoury said.

The children Sunday were likely to qualify for ALP at best. Khoury noted that some may not even qualify for any ALP level. Depending on the placement test results, the ministry may design a literacy and numerical skills program catered to such children.

To Khoury’s dismay, she learned Sunday that several of the Iraqi Christian children had been attending unofficial classes in Burj Hammoud. NGOs and other groups often offer education activities for refugees, but these are not necessarily better than nothing, she argued.

“It scares us [the ministry.] We don’t know who is teaching; we don’t know what they are teaching; we don’t know how [the children] are being taught. We received a letter from the Interior Ministry saying that in some locations, they are gathering kids and teaching them, God knows what, maybe extremist ideologies.”

“We want to educate them with quality education to make sure they will [stay] in the system,” Khoury continued, noting that these unofficial schools were illegal, and taught curriculums not recognized in Lebanon.

She suggested that NGOs were best-placed to provide school transportation, tutoring, and extracurricular activities in subjects such as sports and arts that are not included in the shorter afternoon shifts opened in public schools to accommodate the influx of Syrian students.

Even if the out-of-school refugees complete the ALP this summer, the ministry has yet to secure funding for them to attend formal education in the upcoming school year. It is currently asking the international community for an additional $100 million to fund formal public education for 100,000 more refugees.

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