Syrian refugees seek education in Europe
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.”