Middle East

Syria crisis: Return to school offers hope to refugees

Pupils struggle to sing along as the Jordanian national anthem crackles out from loudspeakers before classes begin at al-Mothana Bin Haretha school in Irbid.

The boys here are almost all Syrian refugees, who have recently come to stay in this city in north Jordan.

Many come from Daraa, just across the border, 25km (15 miles) away, where the conflict in Syria began two-and-a-half years ago. They have not been to school since.

"We kept our kids home even before the schools in Daraa closed," one mother tells me. "We were just so worried about security. With all the fighting going on, I didn't want to let my kids out of my sight."

In the schoolyard, the headmaster shouts some instructions to his young students to raise their arms and march on the spot.

They seem to enjoy the exercise-cum-military drill routine and it helps to maintain discipline.

When the bell rings, the boys file inside from the yard and lessons begin.

Image caption Tarik Btahi, 12, is returning to school after two years' absence due to Syria's civil war

I follow 12-year-old Tarik Btahi who registered at the school just the day before.

"I enjoyed my first class. I'm happy," he tells me. "It wasn't difficult."

But Tarik, like many of the boys here, is now two grades behind for his age.

"For this reason we will give remedial classes in the early days of the academic year," says Irbid's education director, Owyed al-Sqoor.

"We would like the students to refresh their memories so we are focusing on basic skills and knowledge."

Two-shift school

The Irbid area now has 10,000 Syrian students attending 10 government schools. There are plans to open five more.

In order to find room for the extra children, a two-shift system operates: Jordanians go to classes until lunchtime and then Syrians take over.

At the moment there is overcrowding with up to 50 or 60 children in a class and it puts a strain on teachers and resources.

Unicef is providing financial support for the Jordanian authorities to cover teachers' salaries and administrative costs. It also gives books and bags to the Syrian students.

With the start of the new term it has been running a "Back to School" campaign in refugee communities.

"Some families don't see the point of sending their children to school because they think they're in Jordan temporarily; sometimes they're struggling economically and the children work," says Toby Fricker from Unicef in Jordan.

"Our teams go to areas where refugees live, to talk to parents. Sometimes they don't even realise that they can register to go to school here."

In towns and cities across Jordan, there are about 180,000 school age refugees, of which only 50,000 are registered to go to school.

In Zaatari refugee camp, the take-up has increased dramatically this year so that half of the 30,000 children are now registered for classes.

"I've got two girls, aged 10 and eight," Um Ranya says. "At the beginning it was very difficult for them to go to school in the camp as it was too far away. It was also very cold in the winter and we had floods. There were lots of problems.

"Now there is a good, new school near us and the girls are going there. They're doing well."

Future hopes

At the end of the school day in Zaatari Camp, little children can be seen heading back to their makeshift accommodation in tents or cabins, clutching exercise books.

Image caption In towns and cities across Jordan, there are about 180,000 school-age refugees
Image caption However, only 50,000 are registered to go to school
Image caption Many children are deeply traumatised by their experiences during the civil war
Image caption Yet a return to education can offer hope for the future

Non-governmental organisations are prioritising educational services so that children have safe places to go and feel they have some semblance of a normal life here.

At a kindergarten run by Save the Children, several of the boys and girls are so delighted by the new rucksacks they have been given that they insist on wearing them throughout their art class.

An assistant explains that they have few possessions to call their own after leaving their homes in Syria.

Many are deeply traumatised by their experiences during the civil war. When one girl bursts out crying as we approach her table, I am told that she is "very scared of strangers".

Other common problems among refugee children include bed-wetting and nightmares.

Some show reckless and aggressive behaviour that can be a challenge for their parents and teachers.

According to the UN, of the two million Syrian refugees spread across the Middle East about half are children.

The huge numbers raise concern about how the younger generation of Syrians will be scarred by this conflict.

Yet a return to education can offer hope.

Outside the headmaster's office in Irbid, I meet 18-year-old Mohammed and recognise him from my first visit to Zaatari Camp one year ago.

His face was badly burned in an explosion in Daraa and he came to Jordan for medical treatment.

With his Syrian school records destroyed, he is having trouble registering for classes but he desperately wants to catch up on the two years he has missed.

"I want to get my secondary school certificate," he says. "In the future, when this crisis is over, I will need it if I want to go to university or get a good job."