Children return to school in Syria with many grades to catch up

“In addition to the 12-year long conflict, poverty is now another obstacle to Syrian families and their children’s education,” says Eva Hinds, the Finnish Chief of Communication at UNICEF’s country office in Syria.

Eva Hinds lives in Damascus. Hinds says that the destruction of the war is not visible in the immediate vicinity, but there are still many destroyed buildings in the capital and suburbs. Photograph: Mohannad Al-Asadi/ UNICEF

Finland supports UNICEF’s education projects that help children return to school and provide special support to families of children with disabilities.

About one third of Syrian schools have been completely or partly destroyed by bombs or fighting since the civil war began in 2011. Internally displaced people continue to use empty school buildings for shelter.

The UN Children’s Fund UNICEF has renovated school buildings at a brisk pace in recent years.

“The school buildings that are in use operate at full stretch. Some schools have morning and afternoon shifts. Three children may be sharing one desk and up to forty children can study in the same classroom. I visited a school where the children in the morning shift were just coming out of the class to give room for those students in the afternoon shift who were waiting outside. There was quite a hustle and bustle with hundreds of children pouring into the school yard.”

“While it is essential to repair schools and other buildings, that alone is not enough. UNICEF also provides schoolbooks and other supplies to students and produces materials for independent study for those children who cannot attend school in areas with difficult access, for example. We also invest in teacher training,” Hinds says.

A school building destroyed in war in the suburban area of Damascus. Photograph: Mohannad Al-Asadi/ UNICEF    

Poverty hampers everyday life in new ways 

The collapse of the Syrian economy, inflation and record-high food prices, a fuel crisis, largely destroyed and unrepairable building stock, the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and a cholera epidemic, which began last year, have further lowered the wellbeing of the most vulnerable children in the war-ravaged Syria.

UNICEF estimates that about 90 per cent of Syrians are currently living in poverty. According to Hinds, many families have to consider whether they have enough money for children’s school supplies, clothes and travel to and from school.

“Basic education is free, but a long distance to school may turn out to be an obstacle. The parents cannot afford to pay for the travel. Teachers can face the same problem. Children cannot go to school because the car does not have petrol and public transport or taxis are not running. The collapse of the economy has had a very serious effect on people’s everyday lives.”

UNICEF provides teaching to children who have missed several years of school. The aim is that students return to basic education when they are able to keep up with the lessons of their own grade.

“We also provide students living in areas under the control of Turkish troops or the Kurdish regional administration an opportunity to complete official final examinations of comprehensive and upper secondary school that are approved by the Syrian government. More than 15,000 young people from conflict zones took part in the exams last year. We helped with their transportation to the exams and back home safely across the front lines,” Hinds says.

Finland has also supported projects that improve the lives of children with disabilities and their families in Syria. Last year, Finland funded UNICEF’s projects in Syria with approximately EUR 4 million.

“Due to the prolonged conflict, children with disabilities are in an extremely difficult situation. We offer their families small cash assistance and services of a social worker,” Hinds says.

According to Hinds, who has worked in Syria for a year, children and young people there still need a huge amount of help.

“About 2.4 million children and young people – a half of all students in Syria – have not been able to return to school. While the opportunities to attend school are gradually improving, the situation remains very challenging.”

Text: Karoliina Romanoff