Redefining Emergency Education for Syrian Youth

By Neha Rauf


Syrian refugee children attend a lesson in a UNICEF temporary classroom in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Flickr user DFID- UK Department for International Development, under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

The Need for Emergency Education in Syria

As Syria heads into the sixth year of its humanitarian crisis, one of the major side effects of the conflict has been the high number of refugee children in need of emergency education. Today, more than 1.5 million Syrian children, who make up over half of total refugee children living in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, are not enrolled in school. The average length of a refugee crisis is 26 years, meaning some of these children will spend their entire childhood displaced and in need of emergency education. If Syrian children do not return to school, Syria is sacrificing its already tenuous future—the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates suggest this education gap would result in the loss of $10.7 billion in human capital.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) defines “emergency education” as education in situations where children lack access to their national education systems, due to man-made crises or natural disasters. Within the context of the Syrian crisis, emergency education needs to be reframed to better meet the needs of refugee children. Refugees with childhoods defined by trauma, conflict and displacement need psychosocial support, life skills training and spaces for positive social engagement. Unfortunately, in 2015 less than two percent of all humanitarian aid went to education, leaving a funding gap of $8.5 billion annually in aid to provide for the basic needs of these children. The international community has resolved through the UN Education Cannot Wait Fund to increase funding for this issue and coordinate efforts by various actors under a new emergency education framework. The Fund was announced at the World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 and is supported by donor nations, UN agencies, development agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Save the Children. As the global community resolves to create a new framework and increase global coordination on this issue, psychosocial support programs and non-formal education initiatives need to be essential pieces of the puzzle.

Nonprofit organizations and private schools play a vital role in this space, adding value through providing supplemental education including life skills programs and reaching children who otherwise do not have access to formal education. These organizations also recognize that emergency education needs to encompass more than academia; it has to provide the psychological support for a healthy childhood. Problems such as overcrowding in classrooms, language barriers, and intense discrimination against Syrian children hinder host countries in fulfilling Syrian refugee children’s needs.

This article assesses the current efforts to fund and implement emergency education initiatives for Syrian refugee children, discusses the need to incorporate psychosocial support and life skills into these initiatives, and considers the opportunity for increased involvement from private actors and NGOs in this space.

The International Community Commitment

The ­Education Cannot Wait Fund resolves to fill the funding gap in education for children in crisis through commitments from a wide range of contributors including country donors, corporations, foundations, crowd-funding and individuals with high net-worth. Some contributions have been made thus far by the United States Government, the European Union and Dubai Cares, a philanthropic organization created by the government of the United Arab Emirates. However, most donors have not yet indicated the schedule and scale of their planned commitments. Furthermore, a permanent host organization has not yet been identified. The Fund aims to reach at least $1.5 billion in funding by 2020, still leaving a large annual funding gap and millions of children without education. In the past five years of the Syrian conflict, there has been a pattern of inadequate donor funding for education, reaching only 32 percent of children in need. Will these funds materialize in time to prevent a “lost generation” of Syrian youth?

UNICEF, the main implementing organization and interim host of the fund, incorporates psychosocial support and non-formal education initiatives in its No Lost Generation program. However, there is an opportunity and a need for more NGOs and private actors to make valuable contributions in the emergency education space for Syrian refugees. Furthermore, donors, leading international organizations, and host countries should make an effort to include these NGOs and private actors in the new emergency education framework.

The Space for Non-Governmental Involvement

In the Reyhanli district of Turkey, which is on the country’s border with Syria, the Syrian refugee population is 50,000. Most refugees live outside camps with no access to education. Reyhanli is home to the Karam Foundation, one of the nonprofits supplementing education that Syrian children receive at temporary education centers. The Karam Leadership Program provides opportunities for Syrian children to take Turkish language classes to pass the Turkish language proficiency exam (the TOMER), computer literacy training, and workshops centered on developing a career plan.

“The biggest challenges are, of course, ensuring that the education the Syrian children are receiving is one of high quality and that they are able to not only become productive members of their host communities but also for the future of Syria,” Lilah Khoja, advocacy coordinator for the Karam Foundation, said in email correspondence with CSIS.

Karam Foundation approaches emergency education needs holistically, providing trauma therapy, creative therapy activities, health-focused workshops and mind/body exercises in addition to academic support. Mentors help children to address trauma by rebuilding personal bonds, and seek to restore the creativity, confidence and innocence of childhood.

As a corporate example, Pearson Education started a pilot program in 2015 to provide schooling for children in conflict zones. For businesses that provide education goods and services, such initiatives can be a natural extension. Rob Williams, chief executive of War Child UK, a British NGO, said in a 2015 interview for The Guardian that there is commercial potential for education programs and private schools in crises. Some Syrian families may be willing to spend a small amount to send children to a private school as an alternative to overcrowded and inaccessible public schools. Williams also noted that private solutions can be quicker and more efficient than government solutions.

Even though Turkey has taken significant steps to meet the needs of Syrian children – allowing them to enroll in free public schools and accrediting temporary education centers that have Syrian teachers—431,000 of more than 756,000 school-age refugees are still not receiving any education. As Turkey and other countries such as Jordan and Lebanon await billions in donor funding to include more children in public education, there is a clear opportunity for NGOs and private actors to step in and provide emergency education.


There is a vital need to increase global funding for emergency education—the UN Education Cannot Wait Fund is a start, but donors have to establish the amounts and deadlines for delivery. Furthermore, to truly meet the needs of Syrian children, the Fund’s framework should account for the traumatic experiences of Syrian youth and incorporate psychosocial support programs and non-formal education aspects such as life skills training. Innovative private efforts and nonprofits doing valuable work in this space should be incorporated into the Education Cannot Wait Fund’s efforts to help provide the different aspects of emergency education.

Finally, for businesses and education-focused NGOs, there is a clear opportunity to get involved in this space and fulfill some of the needs of the 1.5 million Syrian refugee children still denied their basic right to education. Further research into the business case and the opening for private sector participation in emergency education might incentivize more involvement from companies. For private citizens removed from the Syrian conflict, there are opportunities to provide support through donations to NGOs, or serving as a mentor to Syrian youth.

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