Last August, 10-year old Bayan fled Syria with her family when it became too dangerous for them to stay in Homs. That September, at a time when parents are buying fresh notebooks and sending their children to school in crisp, ironed uniforms, she was instead faced with having to find somewhere to resume her education in the Jordanian town of Mafraq, less than 20 miles from the Syrian border.
Bayan’s difficulties as a refugee were eased by her attending a school in Mafraq run by Jordan-based community organization Islamic Charity Center Society (ICCS). But this year, Bayan will be staying home. Though she longs to begin lessons again, her mother was turned away when she tried to enrol Bayan at a local public school. ICCS’ budget is strapped as well, and staff said they cannot host any Syrians who need their full tuition waived.
“My daughter has been crying for two weeks, she’s asking me to go back to school,” Bayan’s mother, Umm Khalid, said, worry creasing her round, freckled face.
Jordan is currently hosting the highest number of refugees in the region. There are more than 100,000 Syrians registered or waiting to be registered by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), though the Jordanian government puts the number at nearly double to include those who haven’t signed with the agency. To cope with this influx, refugee camps have been set up near the border. At these camps, free education is provided to the school-age children.
But those who came to Jordan before the camps were established are scattered throughout the kingdom and face a myriad of obstacles in resuming their disrupted education.
The Ministry of Education in Jordan has instituted a policy that provides all refugees with the opportunity for free public education if registered with UNHCR. Regardless of this system though, parents have been turned away in Mafraq by both public schools and the Directorate of Education of the Mafraq Governorate because of a lack of space in classrooms, according to Syrians living in the city. Schools can only accept Syrian children if they have room, and in all cases Jordanian students have priority. In an already overcrowded education system, this is creating problems for Syrians in desperate need of schooling.
“We went to the Directorate of Education . They wrote our names and said they would call. They didn’t… It’s like we’ve been forgotten,” said Hanadi, a 25-year old Syrian mother of two school-aged boys, whose family was displaced by violence in Homs in July and now lives in the neighborhood Hay Hussein of Mafraq.
However, Jordan’s Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications, Sameeh Almaitah, said in an interview that 17,000 of the estimated 150,000 Syrian refugees living outside of camps are attending schools in the country, up from 6-7,000 last year. He said there have been no issues with overcrowding in schools.
“There is no problem, we find a special place for . They are everywhere, so we can put them in several different schools,” Almaitah said.
Though there is no way to determine exactly how many Syrian children living in the kingdom miss out on school, some who work with refugees said that Bayan is just one of many displaced kids not receiving an education in Jordan.
“There are 17,000 children outside the camps who are registered and 3,000 of whom are on waiting lists throughout Jordan,” Samir Badran said, a communications specialist at UNICEF. “There is overcrowding in Mafraq and the mapping is done because we need to estimate which schools are nearest to the highest concentration of Syrian refugees.”
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In visits with more than ten Syrian families in Mafraq, nearly all of the parents expressed confusion, anger and frustration that despite registering with UNHCR, they are still unable to find a way to remedy their children’s disrupted schooling. All of the families had to keep their sons and daughters from attending school before they fled to Jordan because of danger in the streets. As a result, many of the children have missed more than a year of education.
“(My son Belal) missed first grade in Syria. Now he’s missing second grade in Jordan. He is seven and he has never been to school,” Hanadi said, her hands tucked under her thin white head covering.
Syrian refugees are frustrated with the obstacles they are encountering, but Jordan is a country already under pressure. Many refugees living outside of the camps are in desperate situations, living in the poorest areas of the country, according to Aoife McDonnell, an assistant external relations officer at UNHCR. “Every individual that enters the country will represent a burden on scarce resources,” McDonnell said.
Dr. Khalid Al-Wazani, a chief economic consultant, echoes this worry. He said the cost of providing education to refugees strains a system that is already vulnerable. Whatever instruction a country provides to its students, that country is responsible to provide the same to the refugees it is hosting. For Jordan, a country with education shortages in both space and workforce, it will be a formidable challenge for the country to meet Syrians’ needs.
“The number of students to teachers in Jordan is already 35 to one, that’s at least twice the international standard. There is a whole new matrix of things you need to do for the schools in order to provide for these people…Space will be a problem,” Wazani said.
In the north, at least one new technique to the space problem is being explored.
The mapping done by the Ministry of Education in Ramtha — a Jordanian border town — showed markedly high concentrations of refugees in pockets throughout the city. This allowed the government to identify where additional aid was needed, working with UNICEF to build 15 prefabricated containers for five schools to deal with the overflow of students. With about 80 percent of the project finished, Badran said the containers stand to serve up to around 1200 students.
Such mapping has been in progress in Mafraq as well, according to Badran, but it is still ongoing with no definitive end date. The Ministry of Education in Jordan is considering either implementing double shifts in schools, or building pre-fabricated containers — as in Ramtha — but specific needs in the community cannot be identified until this mapping is finished.
As the Syrian conflict drags on with no discernible end, refugees in Jordan are preparing for an extended stay. With so many Syrian children unable to resume their schooling, it will continue to remain difficult for these displaced people to establish stability for their families.
“This is an entire generation’s future that is being ruined,” said Abda Hadeed, mother of seven from Al-Khalidiya in Syria. Her seven year old daughter Shama is the only one of her children able to attend school, thanks to a neighborhood teacher allowing Shama to sit in on a class.
“It hurts our hearts that my children are missing their second year. Education is their only future.”