Syria conflict, 1,000 days on: a lost generation in the making

With food and medicine the priorities, fears grow for the Syrian children missing their education

Column LAST UPDATED AT 09:15 ON Mon 9 Dec 2013

BEIRUT - Syria is facing "the most disastrous humanitarian crisis in decade", the EU's Humanitarian Aid Commissioner, Kristalina Georgieva, warned yesterday, marking 1,000 days since the armed conflict began.

Not only has the civil war left more than 100,000 dead and forced more than three million to flee the country as refugees, it has created a lost generation, she said.

Nowhere is this lost generation more evident than in Lebanon, where the greatest number of Syrian refugees have fled.

Only about 85,000 of the estimated 350,000 school-aged Syrian refugees who have ended up in Lebanon will get any sort of formal education this year - roughly 25 per cent. 

"The students should study if they are to have any hope for the future," says Mouneh, a Lebanese woman who teaches French at an unofficial school for refugees in Lebanon's impoverished Baalbek. "If they do not go to school they will sit in the streets. Charity and begging, this is not a future."

For the dozens of aid agencies scrabbling to find funds to provide the most basic assistance, short-term needs must come first.

"All the big agencies are not focusing on education, they are concentrating on food, medicine and shelter," says Mojab, a Syrian refugee, as he shows me pictures on his phone of empty UNHCR education tents.

Aware of the long-term damage that years of missed school can cause, Mojab and his partner Hassan, another Syrian refugee, have taken matters into their own hands. They have set up three schools that can take more than 1,000 children.

With the number of children left outside the system growing daily, alternatives such as these have started to multiply. A Syrian-run project aims to send mobile teacher units to isolated camps. Community spaces and large tents are being commandeered for what the UN calls non-formal education, a programme developed to teach kids basic literacy and numeracy skills as well as help them with mental health issues.

For those who manage to get a coveted space in a proper Lebanon school, there are still difficulties.

The Lebanese curriculum, unlike the all-Arabic Syrian one, is trilingual, with subjects such as maths and sciences taught in English and French.

And although the schools themselves are free, there are still the normal extras to be met -  transport, books and clothing. With refugee children often expected to beg or work, school can be seen as robbing families of an extra earner.

Integration can be difficult, too: stories of racism are common.

But the consequences of not educating more than a million of Syria's youth, most of whom will be staying in their respective host countries for the foreseeable future, is unimaginable.

'Lost generation' was first used to describe the young people who missed so much of their education because of World War I, but has since been recast to fit the millions of young people who have been robbed of a chance to begin their careers due to the eurozone crisis and worldwide recession. 

Now the shadow hangs over this region. 

"If we leave the kids now we will have too many problems in the future," Hassan tells me. "We will have criminals, who knows what.

"Without work or skills they will have no future, what will they turn to then? This does not just affect their future, but also Syria's and Lebanon's."

  • Readers wishing to help fund the education of Syrian refugee children can donate to UNICEF.

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