Gum and roses: Syrian refugee children in sales, not schools

Two Syrian brothers Bashar, 12 (left) and Rasem, 14, who fled their home from Hassakeh, try to sell flowers to make a living in Beirut, Lebanon.

Two Syrian brothers Bashar, 12 (left) and Rasem, 14, who fled their home from Hassakeh, try to sell flowers to make a living in Beirut, Lebanon.


Rula has not had a three-month holiday from school, because she has not attended school for the last three years. With her broken shoes and dirty clothes, she begs for money on the streets of Beirut. Occasionally, she sells chewing gum or roses. She is one of hundreds of Syrian kids walking the streets of Lebanon’s capital.

Late at night, these children can be seen in Hamra and Mar Mikhael street, nightlife spots where bars have popped up since 2012. Not yet teenagers, they sometimes stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. They take care of each other, but occasionally fight. Many have barely grown in the last three years, an example of the lack of care and adequate food for their age.

There are more than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, half of them under the age of 18. Many more have not registered with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), or could not do so after an order from the Lebanese government enforced in May.

Public schools

The government and humanitarian agencies have struggled to provide schooling for all child refugees. Last year, just 106,000 Syrian kids — out of more than 200,000 — primary education after the Ministry of Education limited the number of places available to revaluate the schooling system.

This year, the goal is to offer primary education to 200,000 Syrians. If the objective is reached, the figure will almost match the number of Lebanese children who attend public primary education — less than 30 percent of local children — an example of the massive burden on Lebanon and aid agencies.

“The bulk of the money is now available” says UNICEF Lebanon representative Tanya Chapuisat, dismissing lack of funds as a barrier to enrolling Syrian kids in public school. However, in other sectors lack of money is a problem.

The aid program for Syrian refugees in the region, known as 3RP — Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan — has collected from its donors only 41 percent of the total expected for the current year.

If the goal is reached, it will be the first time since the crisis that most kids of primary schooling age are enrolled. Chapuisat says the problem is larger than paying tuition fees: “There are issues such as children bringing income to the family, because parents have out-of-date residence permit, so they feel insecure to circulate” in public spaces.

Other issues preventing children going to school are families not having the money to pay for transport, or parents being “afraid of letting their daughter walk back from school in the dark in winter. Most of the kids who don’t attend either formal or informal education spend the days “not doing anything.”

Long-term risk

The consequences on children missing education include lack of self-control, self-esteem or confidence to socialize.

In the context of poverty and lack of opportunities in a region plagued by violence and instability, some point to the risk of falling prey to armed groups with financial capacity seeking to increase their ranks.

Kids in areas that are not under Syrian government control have barely attended school due to fighting, destruction of infrastructure, migration of qualified personnel, or lack of organization from the groups in control. Also, government airstrikes have regularly targeted schools, some of which have been used as bases by armed groups.

Recently, reports have emerged of several families with economic problems enrolling children in an armed group in the Deir Ezzor countryside. The group is said to pay $400 a month, enough to feed a large family.

Mounting needs

However, “we shouldn’t be alarmist” says a humanitarian aid worker in the Bekaa region of Lebanon. “The refugee situation is overwhelming, but overall we’re improving the logistics.” He says education is the first step toward minimizing problems in the long-term, but working opportunities are also needed.

Chapuisat says humanitarian agencies are now “focusing on technical and vocation programs.” They can help empower Syrian youths who left school years ago and are not keen on returning to education. However, for educational programs to be a success, both Chapuisat and the humanitarian worker agree there is a need to increase funding for all sectors, not only education.

“There is clearly an issue of lost opportunity, and it’s getting longer and harder for them,” says Chapuisat. Donors have pledged more than $2 billion in recent weeks to help regional countries cope with the Syrian crisis.

After years of underfunding and recent cuts in aid, refugees are skeptical. “When something changes for the better, I’ll let you know,” says Ali Khalef, 46, a refugee and father of 12, whose food vouchers were cut in value last month.


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