Refugee children

There are very few educational opportunities for refugees in Lebanon

Syrian refugee children and young people have been effectively cut off from Lebanon’s education system for over a decade now. State-run schools have nowhere near enough capacity, and the offerings of civil-society organisations cannot fully meet the demand.
A makeshift school for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, eastern Lebanon. picture-alliance/AP Images/Hussein Malla A makeshift school for Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, eastern Lebanon.

Omar Khodr fled from Syria to Lebanon with his family ten years ago. He lives in Bar Elias, a small town in the Bekaa Valley, in the country’s east. Over 300,000 Syrians have found refuge in this region. Khodr’s children are an illustration of the disastrous educational situation of Syrian children and youth in Lebanon. None of his six children, who range in age from seven to 20 years old, has ever attended a regular school.

Instead, they took advantage of a few informal educational opportunities that were provided by civil-society organisations, typically in tent schools for various age groups. Most of these offerings are not recognised by Lebanon’s Ministry of Education. As a result, pupils do not receive valid school certificates or credentials that would allow them to take secondary school examinations. They also cannot qualify for secondary schools.

A lack of spots

Khodr, whose name has been changed to protect his anonymity, cannot afford private schools. The father of six has repeatedly attempted to enrol his children in Lebanese state-run schools that offer evening classes for young Syrian refugees. He has always been turned away with the justification that there are no free spots. Khodr doesn’t doubt this explanation, since the schools in the small town of Bar Elias are not equipped to deal with thousands of new arrivals. What’s more, Lebanon’s state-run schools require documents that he, as a refugee, cannot procure outside Syria.

According to Khodr, during the pandemic-induced lockdown, the teachers of the informal schools tried to conduct classes via the messaging service Whatsapp. It was not effective, he says. Many Syrian refugees cannot afford laptops and powerful internet.

Education for Syrian children and youth is one of the largest challenges that is confronting the Lebanese government and the international community. Over ten years after the start of Syria’s civil war and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Syrians into neighbouring Lebanon, the education level of the young generation is disastrously low and their future prospects are correspondingly dim.

Programme for schooling

During the first few years after the outbreak of the civil war, civil-society organisations paid admission fees for Syrian pupils to state-run Lebanese schools. However, the number of Syrian children quickly exceeded their capacity. In response, the programme R.A.C.E. (Reaching All Children with Education in Lebanon) was launched in 2014. Its goal was to secure schooling for 500,000 Syrian children in Lebanon. The programme, which was financed by the international community, envisaged evening classes for Syrian children and youth at state-run schools according to Lebanese curriculum. Donors paid admission fees to the Lebanese Ministry of Education via the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Financing was also provided for maintenance costs and teachers’ wages.

By now the R.A.C.E. programme, which ended in 2021, has been heavily criticised. The Lebanese NGO Legal Agenda, for example, has declared it a failure. Legal Agenda bases its assertion on numerous sources, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which claims that in 2021, a third of Syrian children between the ages of six and 17 did not attend school. Only 11 % of 15 to 24-year-olds have begun vocational training. According to the Center for Lebanese Studies (CLS), just one percent of pupils completed secondary school in 2019. All of these numbers are likely even lower now given the pandemic and the ongoing global economic crisis.

Fear for children’s safety

Khodr knows most of the many reasons for these low rates. He says that many Syrians do not have enough information about the learning programme that has been established for them at Lebanese state-run schools. Another obstacle, he believes, are evening classes: parents are reluctant to send their children to school in the afternoon because they worry about their safety on the way home after dark. According to Khodr, families also lack the money for transportation. Finally, he points out that children are sent to work in the fields in order to support their families.

A survey conducted by the CLS with Syrian pupils in Lebanese schools also revealed that the vast majority of respondents has difficulties with English and French, the languages in which science classes are taught. The survey also discovered that refugees’ living conditions played a role: overcrowded dwellings and financial distress are clear impediments to learning.

Cooperation between the state and private industry is needed

Maha Shuayb from the CLS is calling for a long-term, comprehensive and integrative programme that would not force Syrians to the margins of society, but rather respect their rights. After all, the researcher claims, learning is not just about combating illiteracy, but also facilitating participation in the labour market over the longer term. Fighting poverty is just as important as expanding the capacity of state-run schools, Shuayb says. In order to implement this approach, given the crisis in Lebanon, she believes that an alliance is needed between the public and private education sector on the one hand and civil society on the other.

In the summer of 2022, Lebanon’s Ministry of Education introduced the successor programme to R.A.C.E., the Transition Resilience Education Fund (TREF). To what extent this is a first step in the direction Shuayb sketched out remains to be seen. The TREF is directed equally at Lebanese and non-Lebanese children and youth. The programme is being implemented in cooperation with UNICEF; the EU and KfW Development Bank are also involved. It ought to pay greater attention to the quality of instruction and respond more flexibly to the needs of Syrian pupils.

Further reading

Baz, B., Outayek, M., 2022: The Ministry of Education launches the Transition Resilience Education Fund, to support Lebanon’s Education Sector.

Norwegian Refugee Council, 2020: The Obstacle Course: Barriers to education for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon.

Al-Issa, J., Ibrahim, H., Mourad, L., 2022: Deprived of school, suffer restrictions – Syrian children subject to “discriminatory” education in Lebanon.

Mona Naggar is an independent journalist in Beirut.

Related Articles


Achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals will require good governance – from the local to the global level.


The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.