Syrian refugee schools spark heated debate in Egypt

One of the schools recently posted photos of a classroom in which Syrian pupils sat at their desks but raised their hands and wore red headbands in a jihadist fashion.

Sunday 24/11/2019
Syrian refugee children listen to their teacher during class at a private educational centre in 6th of October City.      (AP)
Under scrutiny. Syrian refugee children listen to their teacher during class at a private educational centre in 6th of October City. (AP)

CAIRO - The emergence of Syrian schools is stirring debate in Egypt amid fears that Syrian educational institutions negatively affect Egyptian national security.

One of the schools recently posted photos of a classroom in which Syrian pupils sat at their desks but raised their hands and wore red headbands in a jihadist fashion.

“These schools are dangerous, especially as they work separately from official supervision,” said Egyptian schoolteacher Ahmed Abdelnaeem. “The Syrian schools operate as if they are part of another country.”

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians escaped to Egypt following the eruption of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Syrian refugees established enclaves in Cairo, the Nile Delta and in cities along the Mediterranean coast.

In May, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry estimated the number of Syrian refugees in Egypt at 550,000.

Those reaching Egypt included businessmen who pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the economy. They created successful business models and opened thousands of jobs for Syrians and Egyptians alike.

Egypt treats the Syrians as it does its own citizens when it comes to basic services. Syrian refugees receive free medical services at state-run hospitals and enroll their children in state-run schools.

However, there is more demand on the services of the institutions than they can offer.

Egypt’s schools are so overcrowded that Egyptians have a little chance of securing a seat for their children in the nation’s classrooms. Some classes have 40 pupils in them.

In July, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said the government needed to construct 250,000 classrooms to reduce class density and secure space for all Egyptian pupils at the state-run schools.

This is why Syrians must establish their own educational institutions, the Syrians say.

“Our Syrian schools cater to the needs of the refugee community,” said Samer Tu’ma, principal at al-Mehwar, one of several Syrian schools in 6th of October City, a sprawling community on the eastern outskirts of Cairo, where there is a large concentration of Syrian refugees.

“The Egyptian schools are overcrowded and some of them make it difficult for the refugees to enroll their children in them.”

There are 63,643 Syrian children of school age in Egypt, the Egyptian Ministry of Education said. Some of the children are enrolled in Egyptian schools. Others enrolled in the Syrian schools, including 3,500 at al-Mehwar.

Al-Mehwar school teaches the Egyptian curricula but depends on Syrian teaching staff. They present some material on Syria in the refugees’ bid to keep their children connected to their home country.

Apart from overcrowding at the local schools, refugee children find it hard to understand the dialect of Arabic used by Egyptian teachers, the Syrians said. The children often have problems communicating effectively with their Egyptian peers or integrating with them.

Some of the schools demand documents for the enrolment of refugee children, documents often difficult for the children’s parents to obtain.

“Most of the refugees left everything behind before coming here,” said Syrian refugee Anas Amer who has two children of school age. “They have no certificates or documents.”

Amer said he found it hard to provide Egyptian schools with official documents for his children, including birth certificates and a proof of his legal entry into Egypt. This was why he registered them in one of the Syrian schools in 6th of October City.

Most of the Syrian schools are not recognised by the Egyptian Ministry of Education. There is also fear the schools might be radicalising children.

Egyptian authorities shut down a Syrian educational centre after accusing staff members of teaching extremist material.

Egyptians’ initial sympathy with Syrian refugees morphed into fear — and sometimes hostility — when thousands of refugees sided with Islamist President Muhammad Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 when Egyptians rose up against the Morsi government.

Syrian refugees joined protest camps of Morsi’s supporters and called for the institution of an Islamist government in Egypt.

Hostility towards the Syrians popped up again after refugees expressed support to the Turkish invasion of north-eastern Syria, an operation opposed by Egypt.

“These schools should not be left to operate without supervision,” Abdelnaeem said. “The Syrians have to show respect for Egyptian laws by suspending the creation of institutions parallel to state institutions.”

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