Syrian refugee teachers strive to deliver better education

With no hope of return to their homeland at present, Syrians face obstacles as they aim to stabilize their uncertain future

Rua’a Alameri
Rua’a Alameri - Al Arabiya English, Zaatari Camp, Jordan
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Five years into Syria's civil war, and with no resolution in sight, millions have fled the country.

Sparked by the 2011 revolution against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the war has affected what the United Nations estimates to be as many as 13.5 million people, leading to 4.8 million having little choice but to leave the war-torn country.

In response to the high influx of refugees to neighboring countries, temporary settlements were soon set up. In July 2012, Zaatari refugee camp opened in Jordan, which is now estimated to host over 79,000 Syrians.

With the ever-growing number of refugees, many of whom have little hope of returning to their homeland, some are turning to education in hopes of a better future.

“We hope that we can return to our country but at the same time there is a chance to learn so we shouldn’t miss this opportunity,” Alaa al-Masalmeh, a Syrian refugee teacher, told Al Arabiya English during a two-day teacher training conference that began in the camp on Monday.

“Even if one day we do return, at least we could finish or continue with our education, we shouldn’t just sit and do nothing, we should try to live life normally.”


'Conference in a Camp,' hosted by the British Council in Jordan in partnership with Relief International, was set up with the aim to develop the skills of teachers living and working in Zaatari and increase the number of students learning English.

“The English language is seen as something really important by the refugees,” said Yvonne Fraser, a senior teacher at the British Council.

“Obviously they don’t want to stay in the camp forever, and they see English or possibly another foreign language as a way to get a scholarship to Europe.”

However, scholarships are limited and students face many problems in applying. Many need to take an exam in English proficiency, but have difficulties leaving the camp to register and do the test in the Jordanian capital Amman, around 70 kilometers away.

Psyche Kennett, an English learning expert who attended the conference, told Al Arabiya English that the main reason to teach the English language was so that refugees could communicate with non-governmental organizations.

“It’s a broader picture and it’s not so imperialist,” she said.

As well as logistical problems faced by the students, teachers say education levels at the camp are weak.

Danijel Cuturic, an education program manager at Relief International, said that all the schools in Zaatari camp - which are operated by the Jordanian government - have a policy that places Syrian refugee students in schools by their age group, even if the pupil has missed a substantial amount of schooling.

“If a 12-year-old from Syria missed one year of schooling and came to Jordan, the government’s policy is that you need to be placed in the grade for a 12-year-old, it doesn’t matter how much schooling a child missed – so for students who come here who missed several months of schooling it’s very difficult for them to learn,” Cuturic said.

Cuturic also stated that the government schools only allow Jordanians to teach. Syrian refugee teachers are only able to serve as assistants, or teach in educational centers set up by non-profit groups. The non-profit schools can only offer remedial education.

The British Council’s Syrian Director, Joel Bubbers, told Al Arabiya English Syrian refugees living in the camps who were once working professionals find it very difficult to find work and continue their professional experience.

“If you are living in Zaatari, if you are a teacher in Zaatari you don’t get long term support to build your capacity and quality as a teacher. You have become a refugee, a displaced Syrian who is no longer a professional that you once were in your country,” Bubbers said.


Changing attitudes

Some teachers find that children and parents in the camp have a disapproving attitude towards education.

“Some students say to me ‘why should I study, we live in a refugee camp so why should I study?’ And some would prefer to work in the shops with their parents in the camp,’” said Khaled Masalmeh, a Syrian refugee teacher who lives in the camp.

“Some parents don’t want their daughter to go to school because they want her to stay at home or get married,” Masalmeh said.

Additionally, the psychological effect of the war has had a traumatic impact on the children, affecting their studies.

“Young children whose parents died in the conflict isolate themselves, and find it difficult to interact with other students, which affects their studies,” Masalmeh added.

Cuturic, the program manager, said that living in a refugee camp has a psychological impact on adults.

With refugee families confined in small spaces in over-crowded tents, many feel that their personal sense of freedom is sorely lacking.

“One of the teachers said to me once that her biggest wish was to see green trees, she told me she hasn’t seen trees in three years,” he said.

“While we talk about methodology, it is also important to pay attention to the wellbeing of the teachers who are the ones teaching the children.”

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