Jordan’s Response to Refugee Education Crises: Lessons from the Syrian and Iraqi Cases

by Zeina Siam

The educational crisis of Syrian children in Jordan is one of the most severe dimensions of the Syrian crisis. Today, there are around 300,000 school-aged, Syrian children in Jordan, and as of December 2013, only fifty-five percent had enrolled in Jordanian schools. This, however, is not the first time Jordan has responded to a refugee education crisis. Jordan has hosted hundreds of thousands of refugees over the last decades, mainly Palestinians and Iraqis. With these refugees staying in Jordan for the long-term, education has become a critical part of Jordan’s refugee response—not only for the refugees’ interest, but also for Jordan’s economy, social structure, and stability.

Despite Jordan’s rich experience in hosting refugees, the country is still unable to adequately respond to educational crises. This inability is due to the lack of mechanisms within Jordan’s educational system for emergency education provision. The Iraqi educational crisis in 2006 and the current Syrian crisis illustrate this issue.

The 2003 Iraq war brought 450,000 to 500,000 Iraqis to Jordan, twenty-seven percent of whom were children. In 2007, Jordan decided to open public schools to Iraqi children. While targets aimed at enrolling 50,000 Iraqi children that academic year, de facto enrollment remained low, increasing from 18,000 to only 22,000 that academic year.

Capacity challenges were a major reason for low enrollment. Schools became over-crowded with class sizes ballooning tosixty students in areas hosting refugees. Apart from capacity, discrimination based on country of origin and religion and legal status problems were also obstacles. Some children did not receive the necessary mental health support and others did not have the financial capability to afford transportation to school or to purchase school uniforms. While the international community attempted to address some of these obstacles, efforts mainly started in 2007 and came too late to complete programs or address refugees’ needs in a timely fashion.

The Iraqi refugees’ education crisis indicates that successful action requires more than just opening school doors. Jordan’s educational system requires capacity building, initiating, and sustaining training programs to enhance the skills and numbers of teachers, and developing strategies to make refugees’ transition into the Jordanian educational system smoother. These changes need to be made prior to any crisis.

Jordan, however, did not take the initiative to improve its response to emergency education after the Iraqi crisis, and when the Syrian crisis hit, Jordan was not prepared for a timely and effective response.

The Syrian crisis caused much larger refugee flows into Jordan than the Iraqi crisis. By March 2014, almost 600,000 Syrian refugees were registered by the UN in Jordan, more than fifty percent of whom were children. Jordan again allowed refugees to enroll in its public schools, but could not accommodate them. The percentage of overcrowded schools rose from thirty-six percent in 2011 to forty percent by the end of 2013, and seventy-nine double-shift schools started, adding to the strain on teachers and school infrastructure. In addition to capacity issues, many Syrian students have found it hard to fit into the Jordanian community or difficult to adjust to the new curriculum. There have been similar problems with lacking psychological supportFinancial challenges, including the inability to afford uniforms and transportation to and from school, have been additional obstacles. The history of the Iraqi crisis is repeating itself through the Syrian crisis.

Jordan is addressing these challenges mainly with UNICEF, by initiating admirable projects that include constructing fabricated classrooms, training teachers and mental health professionals, and identifying schools that are overcrowded in urban areas. However, these initiatives take time, and thus have not been able to keep up with the crisis. Enrollment of Syrian children in formal education did not exceed fifty-five percent in 2013 and more than 19,500 of students were on the waiting list.

The Syrian and Iraqi education crises show that Jordan is in need of major emergency education planning to adequately respond to any future refugee crisis. Jordan needs a flexible educational system that can accommodate poor and traumatized children from different cultures and educational backgrounds. Jordan can implement evidence-based strategies learned from these two crises, which include reducing the student to teacher ratio to increase the buffer zone for refugee accommodation, integrating mental health into the educational system through regular training programs, and establishing a fund to sponsor the transportation and school necessities of financially disadvantaged refugees.

While such changes are costly, it is important for a resource-poor country like Jordan to maintain high levels of public education for the sake of its economy. Emergency education planning is also crucial in light of the current instability in the Middle East and Jordan’s interest in maintaining its status as the most stable country in the region at a time when international aid is increasingly scarce. Despite hopes that refugees will return home, Jordan must look at the reality of integrating Jordanians, Palestinians, Iraqis, and Syrians into society—a process that can be abetted by formal education.

About the Author

Zeina Siam is a second year Masters student at Harvard School of Public Health, studying epidemiology. At Harvard, Zeina is currently involved in research projects about breast cancer, as well as the status of Syrian refugees in the Middle East. Last summer, Zeina was a consultant at the World Bank Middle East and North Africa Health Unit in Washington, DC. She focused on identifying opportunities for improving fairness and accountability in healthcare systems of the Arab World and on environmental health challenges in the region. Zeina obtained her Bachelors of Science Degree in Biological Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she received the James E. Cunningham Memorial Scholarship for Outstanding Women in Biological Engineering in 2010.

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