Ahmed, 9, and Shamaa, 10, are next door neighbours. They sit on the floor of their Yeman home in the afternoon, homework sprawled across the sunlit floor.Shamaa and Ahmed are home from school for the day. They’re drinking juice, playing with their siblings. It’s a scene replicated in homes all over the world. Yet this seemingly normal situation has not come easily to these two children, nor to their families.
A year ago, they were living in a state of war. Eight months ago, they fled their homes with nothing but the clothes they were wearing.
“There were soldiers surrounding our home suddenly. We didn’t take anything, we just ran,” says Shamaa. She’s gentle, and softly spoken. It is strange to imagine her in such a situation.
Fleeing their home, Shamaa's family made their way to the Jordanian border. Before they had time to process what had happened, they had found themselves at Za’atari, a sprawling desert camp built for around 50,000 people and now housing three times that number. The camp is unforgiving – treeless, dusty, and desolate.
“We stayed three months in the camp, but it was very bad,” says Shamaa’s mother, Samhar. “It was winter and we were freezing. We used all of our money to get out, but maybe that was the wrong choice. We are really struggling to survive here, we’re left with nothing. But many people were killed in my country. I couldn’t leave them there,” she says, gesturing toward the children.
Five months ago, they left Za’atari and made the journey to Irbid, a sprawling city in Jordan’s north. “When we went to find a house here, one of the landlords I approached said to me, ‘no, you go back to Syria. They should have killed you’. It’s been a very hard time for me,” says Samhar swallowing hard. Her lip is shaking, but she smiles at her youngest son, 5-year-old Abidalnoor, whose big eyes are firmly fixed on hers. “All this time, my children have been missing school. They’ve been missing play too. This is no life for them.”
Ahmed and Shamaa were neighbours in Syria. Their mothers were friends. When the fighting intensified in their neighbourhood two years ago, they stopped going to school.
“I went to school when I was in Syria,” says Sabeen. “I really loved it, and I loved my friends, and everything. We lived in the village and played in the garden with our friends. Now, I can’t do that. There is nothing here.”
The Jordanian government has opened public schools in the country to Syrian refugees, but the demand is great and the schools fill fast. Schools nearby to Ahmed and Shamaa are at capacity, and their mothers cannot afford transportation costs to send them elsewhere. Even when attending a local school is a viable option, many children have missed too many months, or years, to be able to keep up. Others need to work to take care of their families. Child labour is rife, and the drop-out rate is high.
“Around 60 per cent of Syrian refugee children are not attending school,” says Sabrina Pourmand, Programme Director for World Vision’s Syria Crisis Response. “Over 50 per cent of Syrian refugees are school-aged children. With these kinds of statistics, it's clear that there could be an entire lost generation of children, stripped of their rights to get an education.”
In response to the immense need, World Vision Ireland has been facilitating remedial classes in North Jordan during the summer school break. This allowa both Syrian and Jordanian children affected by the crisis to access education, making up for lost time in the classroom. The aim is to equip them to return to school when they can, reintegrating into the class levels appropriate to their ages.
Laila, who facilitates the project through partner agency UNRWA, explains the need for the program. “The syllabus between Jordan and Syria is quite different. In Syria, they don’t learn in English, for example. Our program is to prepare them to go to school, so we don’t lose them. We don’t want them to drop out because of this. They are just little children.”
Ahmed and Shamaa have been attending the remedial school during the summer, and are preparing to graduate this week.
“Miss Laila approached us, and told us about the special classes,” says Samhar - Shamma’s mother. “It was a blessing because we couldn’t send them anywhere else without money to get there. We want to go back to our homeland and I want my children to live safely there but I can’t do that now. I was worried about so much, that my children wouldn’t catch up with school. Our lives keep slipping away, but I know this will help.”
Ahmed says he has enjoyed his classes in Jordan. His school bag and books now comprise the majority of his possessions.
“I like everything at school. I learn reading, maths and English. I was not too familiar with some of these things at the start, but now I understand,” he says.
“Things are very difficult here,” he adds. “Life is difficult, and school is difficult because the language is different. But I like the new school. I like both schools now – here and Syria.”
Sabeen’s English homework book is open to T – for ‘tree’. He points to the word, and says it aloud: “Tree”. “But… there are no trees here,” he says. “There are trees in Syria. One day I’ll go back to Syria.”
World Vision Ireland is hoping to expand its remedial education program, at least doubling the amount of children attending catch-up classes this year.
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