Human Rights International Affairs International Systems Refugees

The Lost Generation

From the IMPACT Archives December 2014
By Sam Friedlander

They’re calling them the Lost Generation.

Back home, my generation is the iGeneration, the Selfie Generation, the Hashtag Generation. Cute, clever titles gently mock our self-obsession and reliance on technology.

In Syria, they’re the Lost Generation. It’s not cute, it’s not clever, but it might be true, and that’s heartbreaking. An entire Syrian generation isn’t being educated, and the consequences could be dire for Syria’s future.

The Syrian Civil War began in the spring of 2011; since then, The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified 3 million refugees. Of these, UNHCR estimates 844,000 are school-aged (5-17), but 527,000 of these children aren’t attending school. And these are only the refugees—millions more are still in Syria (UNICEF puts the number of affected children in Syria at 4.65 million and the number of children not attending school at 2.26 million). The numbers are hard to put into perspective, but it might help to know Syria has a population of 18 million, according to their government’s latest statistics.

18 million people—and 2.8 million of them are school-aged children not attending school. This doesn’t include countless more attending subpar schools in Syria and countries hosting refugees, mainly Jordan.

I recently visited Za’atari—located in Jordan, it’s the second-largest refugee camp worldwide, with 120,000 residents according to camp officials with whom I spoke. The sheer number of people and strict organization make it hard to imagine this crisis will be short-lived; with districts, streets, and a hierarchy of leaders, the whole affair feels like it’s set up to last. And for good reason: UNHCR claims the average refugee crisis lasts 17 years. Walking down Za’atari’s dusty roads, waving at gangs of underfed children playing between canvas tents extending for miles, I can’t imagine spending one year there, let alone 17.

This September, I attended a talk at the Harlem Film Festival given by a former convict who had since graduated college and started a business. “All it takes is one generation to break the cycle of poverty,” he told the crowd, “and a good education can be the game-changer for that one generation.” If it takes one generation to break the cycle, does the corollary also hold true? Will it only take one generation to begin a cycle of poverty and hardship for an entire country?

In order to prevent this catastrophic outcome, it’s important to understand what’s currently preventing Syrian children from receiving educations. At Za’atari, I spoke with families who confirmed what I’d already learned in class and from articles such as UNHCR’s most recent report on the crisis, “The Challenge of Education”: money, disabilities, and trauma are major obstacles within the camp. Instead of attending school, many children work to help their families buy basic necessities like cleaning supplies and clothes not covered by UN prepaid coupons. Disabled children don’t attend school; traumatized children often don’t want to (being separated from their families, even for mere hours, can be terrifying after witnessing unspeakable violence). Many refugees believe they’ll soon return to Syria and therefore don’t feel the need to attend school until they’re back home.

Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan
Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan

Outside camps, the situation remains grim. Although the Jordanian government theoretically opened schools to Syrians, reality doesn’t match these goals. I recently spoke to Dr. Badi Al-Madi, a professor at the University of Jordan and a refugee expert. Practically speaking, he explained, there’s simply not enough room, and children are turned away from schools daily because of overcrowding. “But that’s illegal!” I protested, hand raised in defiance. Dr. Al-Madi shrugged. Whatever the government’s intention, the reality is schools long ago reached capacity.

Although this seems like a strong argument, it’s ultimately specious. Yes, schools are overcrowded. But Jordan is receiving international aid to deal with the crisis—surely expanding the school system is a worthwhile use of money. Private schools could offer scholarships. Other countries could encourage Syrians to seek refuge there, alleviating some of the burden on Jordan. “There are too many of them” simply can’t be the response.

Even if Syrian children do go to school, focus can be difficult when family members have died recently or remain threatened in Syria. Mothers in Za’atari told me class sizes were up to 70, and textbooks were scarce. “It’s the end of the semester,” one mother lamented, “and my daughter still hasn’t received textbooks. She hasn’t learned anything!” Outside the camps, UNHCR reports, discrimination and bullying prevent Syrians from learning. Jordanian teachers aren’t equipped with training to deal with traumatized children. Transportation is an obstacle, and school supplies are prohibitively expensive. Many classes require internet, which most Syrian children don’t have. And then there’s the Jordanian law dictating that anyone who misses three years of school can’t re-enroll; with the Syrian crisis well into its fourth year, it’s very plausible that many children have been displaced and therefore out of school for three years, leaving them with no access to education.

For Jordanian citizens who bemoan the stress refugees place on their social services, I’d challenge them to remember that regional country borders were drawn relatively recently and somewhat arbitrarily. Many northern Jordanians consider themselves Syrian. They speak the same language and (for the most part) practice the same religion and trace their heritage back to the same peoples. And, if all else fails, Jordanians must remember that a stable Syria is in their interest, as regional politics affect Jordan greatly.

Syria cannot afford to allow an entire generation to go uneducated. Frankly, the rest of the world cannot afford to allow an entire generation within a historically unstable region to go uneducated. There will come a time when Syria will have to call on the next generation to lead the country, to make decisions affecting both domestic and international communities. When that day comes, it’s absolutely imperative that there be well-educated people from whom to choose. There’s no alternative, no do-over. These children will one day be Syria’s most fundamental resource—and, right now, many of them can’t even read.

Host governments and refugee camps must hire more teachers and enlarge schools. Teachers must be trained to support traumatized children. UNICEF, UNHCR, and other organizations must provide families with school supplies and transportation. Accelerated learning programs must be expanded so children who have missed school can catch up. Anti-bullying and discrimination campaigns must do a better job of making refugee children feel safe. Internationally, countries must provide more aid so children can be well-fed, warm, and safe, allowing them to focus on school.

Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan
Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan

It’s easy to feel disconnected from the Syrian crisis, but don’t fall victim to the belief that you must be nearby to have an impact. Donating to a responsible organization (UNHCR, UNICEF, and Save the Children are typically recognized as reputable) is a start. UNHCR allows civilians to write to Syrian children, or you can write a letter to the government or an organization encouraging them to better support Syrian children. Volunteering for organizations is even more hands-on. And there’s always the easiest form of support: Be vocal. Respond to that email from your parents asking if you’re still alive with a link to an article, discuss it at your fraternity’s next meeting and your club’s next event and your friends’ next BYO.

Or you could tweet about it. After all, we’re the Hashtag Generation—it’s a ridiculous name, but it’s better than the Lost Generation, and surely we can embrace our silly title if it means the children of Syria won’t have to accept theirs.


Top photo: Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan