Syrian refugees seek education in Europe

Issue of refu­gee education is certainly not going away soon and therefore requires more attention both at national and international level.

Children of a welcome class for immigrants from Syria, Poland and Romania attend a German lesson at a primary school in Berlin.


2016/06/05 Issue: 59 Page: 12


The Arab Weekly
Mahmud el-Shafey



London - Most of Syria’s schools stand empty. Be­yond the capital, Damascus, Syrian children remain at home because it is too dangerous to go outside. Millions of school­children have fled the country and are receiving an education in Leba­nese schools or Jordanian refugee camps.

For Syrian refugees who have fled the farthest, Europe is their new safe haven and the continent’s well-funded and well-established education system is a major draw.

“One of the things that is very in­teresting about the Syrian refugee crisis that is different from other refugee crises is that there are large number of refugees entering school systems that are very stable and very well-resourced and they have the kind of resources to be able to respond,” said Sarah Dryden-Peter­son, assistant professor of educa­tion at Harvard University.

Syrian refugee children, whose education may have been disrupted for years, face a monumental task in getting their lives on track. Europe’s school systems, and eventually its higher education facilities, offer Syrians the best chance to prosper.

Following a recent visit to two German schools that advocate dif­ferent — but not competing — mod­els for dealing with refugee educa­tion, Dryden-Peterson outlined the difficulties refugee children face, not least learning a new language and culture, as well as overcoming traumas.

A recent report by the Migration Policy Institute found that 45% of Syrian refugee children experi­enced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and that 60% had witnessed physical violence dur­ing the Syrian conflict. In 2015, the Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wis­senschaft (GEW) teaching union predicted that Germany would need at least 25,000 more teaching staff to deal with new arrivals in addition to more psychiatrists, translators and social workers.

“School and education adminis­trations have never been confront­ed with such a challenge. We must accept that this exceptional situa­tion will become the norm for a long time to come,” Brunhilda Kurth, who heads the German education authority, told Die Welt.

The current crop of educators faces a difficult task in teaching children who are dealing with such issues. Germany has developed two complementary models to handle refugee children: one creates a sep­arate classroom for refugee children of all ages and another integrates children directly into existing class­rooms.

Many schools have a long history of absorbing the children of mi­grants and are staffed by teachers who have experience working with German language learners. The aim of this education model is to build bridges between classmates of dif­ferent backgrounds, integrating newcomers to Germany while intro­ducing German-born children to the country’s new multicultural reality. It requires highly trained teachers who can handle mixed-ability class­rooms, ensuring that all children re­ceive the help they need.

“If integrated classrooms can support the kind of learning needs that refugee students have then they provide the kind of social sup­port and the sense of becoming part of a community that is so essen­tial for refugee children. But when teachers are overstretched, when they don’t have the kind of train­ing that would allow them to meet these kinds of learning needs, it’s very easy in that kind of integrated setting for refugee children to fall behind,” Dryden-Peterson said.

“In some cases, an intense sepa­rate experience before being inte­grated into mainstream national classrooms can be useful in order to help children learn the language and figure out where they are in their educational trajectory,” she added.

However, when the system works, as in a recent heart-warm­ing UNICEF video showcasing the burgeoning friendship between 7-year-old Syrian refugee Nammer and his classmate Alec in Berlin, it really works. Alec and Nammer attend school with students from more than 60 countries.

“It’s really interesting that he went really far. He started in Syria, travelled to Turkey, then to Greece, then to Germany,” Alec said, speak­ing in English. “And it was a really hard journey,” Nammer, also speak­ing English, concurred. Nammer is still learning English and Alec helped him with translation.

“He is one of the best readers in our class and he has made lots of friends this year and probably will make more friends this school year,” Alec said.

It is more than five years since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict and, while European education systems are hardier than their Middle East­ern counterparts, the issue of refu­gee education is certainly not going away soon and therefore requires more attention both at the national and international level.

“In the schools that I visited in Germany teachers felt very much on their own in trying to figure this out. That’s not to say that they weren’t creating that kind of com­munity to try to bring their heads together as teachers to figure things out within their own schools. But there was very little support from outside organisations or institu­tions or any kind of policy guidance or best practice,” Dryden-Peterson said.

“We see this in most refugee situ­ations, the adaptation and response happens very locally within schools and communities and only after a certain amount of time are there more regional, national and global responses.”


Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.


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