Children running in a school yard during recess.

Syria: The long journey back to school

Syrian children have lived through years of conflict, yet they often do not know precisely what “conflict” means. They have, however, come to recognise its consequences in the answers of their parents. How did our loved one pass away? What happened to our house? Why do I have to drop out of school? Why can we no longer afford to cook this meal?

Conflict is almost always the answer. It is the answer to many of their physical, psychological and social vulnerabilities.

Over what has been a lifetime for many of them, children in Syria have endured extreme circumstances and have had their opportunities suffocated by conflict. In 2023, some 2.4 million school-age children are out of school and 1.6 million are at risk of dropping out.

Children sitting in the school yard during recess.
Children playing in the school yard during recess. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

Children have to go out to work

Nada, 11, is from Aleppo, in the north of Syria. Due to their old age, health problems and a shortage of opportunities, Nada’s parents have no jobs. The family moved to the central city of Hama, only to return home having failed to find work. Nada left school, never to return.

Learning gaps among Syrian children have grown over the years. They prevent many children from keeping pace with their peers and discourage parents from supporting their children’s educational pursuits. Combined with financial difficulties and decaying school facilities, such challenges stop children from going back to learning even if their circumstances change.  

Instead of going back to school, Nada had to work and provide for her family. She joined a group of other children working as waste pickers and, being the most senior, she was appointed leader. This entailed protecting the rest of the children from the countless risks they could encounter in the streets.

Street waste pickers reclaim recyclables from mixed waste in garbage bags and bins on streets or in dumpsters. Some have arrangements with residential areas, or commercial and/or office buildings.

“I worked in waste picking. I did not like it at all, and I hated how it made me feel embarrassed. I missed everything about school, like learning, my teachers, and my friends,” says Nada.

Zakiah, a volunteer at a local association in Aleppo. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

Searching for scraps

“Before the crisis, we used to see a few children in the streets begging for money, selling biscuits, gum, or other simple items to earn a living,” says Zakiah, a volunteer at a local association in Aleppo. “However, the crisis has significantly increased the numbers of those children.”

Poverty remains the greatest force driving Syrian children into child labour. Their survival and that of their families depends on it. However, in many cases, they work because unscrupulous adults take advantage of their vulnerability.

“Even though there is no financial necessity, many of these children still must work. Once, a little girl came to class late and sweating, and when I asked her why, she said she had to wake up early and do her daily two rounds of searching [for scraps] before she could have the rest of the day for herself,” adds Zakiah.

Portrait of Nour, a volunteer at a local association.
Nour, a volunteer at a local association. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

“You cannot grow a flower in the desert”

In general, child education programmes run by INGOs in Syria often create an “ideal learning environment”. In these spaces, classes have an ideal number of students and build a daily routine that includes morning exercises, nutritional snacks, and recreational activities. Teachers feel comfortable and confident doing their jobs as they have up-to-date teaching techniques and materials to keep students focused and able to communicate ideas effectively.

Teachers also have the space to pay attention to their students and help them overcome problems. Compensation and training make it for many a rewarding job.

However, when such programmes end after a few months, students return to face the harsh reality. In most public schools, classes are bursting at the seams, resources are scarce, basics such as water and electricity are not available, and teachers are overwhelmed. Students return to a reality where the root causes that led to them dropping out of school have not been addressed and still impact their future.

Exorbitant tuition and transport fees prevent many families from sending their children to school and even make it difficult for teachers to reach their schools. The cost of sending one child to school amounts to more than SYP700,000 (equivalent to USD 52). An average family earns just SYP250,000 (USD 19) a month.

"You cannot grow a flower in the desert,” says Nour, a volunteer with a local association. “Educational programmes should be consistent and holistic to address the core reasons leading to child labour and child begging.” 

Portrait of Hussein, a volunteer at a local association.
Hussein, a volunteer at a local association. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

Local aid organisations play a crucial role in supporting their community’s ability to recover. Back in 2015, young Hussein was heading to work. He was part of a water project that a local organisation was running in Aleppo. At the time, conflict had caused unprecedented water cuts in Aleppo. Residents would go days, even weeks, on a few hundred litres. Hussein’s team trucked water to affected areas. One of the locations on their daily roster was an educational centre managed by a local association.

At the centre, he was approached by one of the supervisors who asked: “Why aren’t you in school?”

By then Hussein had been out of school for six years and taken on multiple jobs to provide an income for his family. Their encounters continued each time Hussein visited the centre and, with each conversation, his heart softened to the idea of returning to education. He later enrolled in one of the organisation’s self-learning programmes, and completed the 12th grade exam, the test that qualifies students to enrol in university.

Now in his twenties, Hussein studies physics at the Aleppo University of Science. He also works with a local NGO that provides education and child protection services. Hussein has one goal in mind: to help other children “find a brighter future, just like that man helped me”.

A teacher and a student face the board during a remedial Arabic class.
Remedial Arabic classes in Aleppo. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

Local organisations need support

In Syria, local organisations have been a source of relief for vulnerable families. Their importance came to the fore during the 2023 earthquake response, when they were the first to reach and comfort terrified families and provide lifesaving assistance.

However, these organisations often face many challenges, including funding shortages, donor regulations, and low capacity for writing proposals and financial management. Each year, the humanitarian needs in Syria are growing bigger and more complex. To address them, local NGOs need opportunities to build their capacity so they can tailor their programmes and services to better support the people they serve.

In the humanitarian sector, localisation means empowering local responders in affected countries to lead and deliver humanitarian aid. It aims at strengthening the capacity and resources of local organisations to respond to crises and promote long-term sustainability.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is working to support these local NGOs. “We recognise that child [begging] in Aleppo is a social problem that requires a lot of time and effort to address. We wanted to achieve a lasting impact that goes beyond the programme period,” says Hussam Eddin Zayyat, capacity building coordinator with NRC.

“With support from the Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), NRC implemented a programme to build the capacity of local organisations in child protection and education [to] address this phenomenon.”

NRC team members training staff members at a local association in Aleppo. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

The programme trained and built the capacity of staff from local NGOs on topics related to the difficulties they face when serving children in their communities. These topics covered administrative skills such as programme management, budgeting and proposal writing, financial management, reporting, monitoring and evaluation. Other sessions aimed to enhance the knowledge on topics related to collaborative dispute resolution and gender, age, and diversity. More sessions dealt with protection themes such as safe referrals and case management.

After the theoretical part of the programme was completed, some of the project participants worked with NRC’s education team to implement education programmes for child beggars and homeless children. While searching the street for children to join the programme, the team found Nada and contacted her mother to ask for her consent to join the programme. After several tries, she agreed, and Nada eventually went back to school.

"I learned a lot from the teacher, but the most important thing I learned was the lessons about respect. I did not understand what respect was before this, but now that I do I respect everyone, young and old. I want to study and become a lawyer as I want to make justice for all,” she says.

Nada, one of the children who participated in NRC's education programme, studies at home.
Nada, one of the children who participated in NRC's education programme, studies at home. Photo: Tareq Mnadili/NRC

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