Future under threat: The impact of the education crisis on Syria's children - Maysa's story

Sunday 21 September 2014

On 18th September 2014 Save the Children released a report on Syrian children's education, which looked at the impact of the Syrian conflict on children inside Syria and in countries across the region. The report finds that:

  • Schools are being increasingly forced to close because of the conflict
  • From an almost 100% enrolment rate, Syria has now descended to the second worst rate of school attendance in the world with 2.8 million children out of school
  • Up to half of children surveyed by the agency in Syria reported they were 'rarely' or 'never' able to concentrate in class
  • Syrian refugee children in neighbouring countries are facing disturbing rates of abuse, bullying, corporal punishment and marginalisation

The report looks at the situation both inside Syria and for those children living in host countries, including Egypt. “The international community has to step up its response to ensure that we do not lose an entire generation of children,” says Save the Children's Regional Director Roger Hearn. "“We have heard from children being cursed and ridiculed by teachers in host countries, being told that they have ruined their country or to go back to Syria,” Roger said. “Others face corporal punishment at school. In Egypt alone, 30% of children we interviewed told us they were being hit by teachers and 70% are being verbally abused.”

Save the Children in Egypt spoke to several Syrian children living in Greater Cairo about their experiences of education as a refugee.

 Maysa* is a 14 year old Syrian refugee currently attending an Egyptian government school in Greater Cairo. In Syria, she was at the top of her class and hoped to eventually attend medical school. In Egypt, however, she finds that the focus on expensive private tuition puts Syrian students at a disadvantage, as most of them can’t afford to pay the fees for these extra classes.

 Maysa*’s story in her own words:

 “I’ve been living in Egypt for a year and two months. I have three brothers and a sister, who are all older than me except for one brother. Most of my family came here before me, but I stayed with my father in Syria until I finished all my exams. After they were over, we joined our family here.

 Before I left Syria I was in the sixth grade. I went to a government school for girls, which wasn’t very expensive.  We paid fees, but they weren’t as much as in private schools. We didn’t need to use the private schools as the education is very good at the government ones. During the war, we had an underground shelter at our school. Whenever we heard bombs or anything, we hid there. Once there was a bomb at our school, and some of the students died. Afterwards the school was kept open, and we even continued our lessons inside the shelter. After the school was bombed some families were afraid to send their daughters there, but I lived near the school so I went every day. The school has a rule that even if only one student is there, they will still hold the lessons. I wasn’t afraid to go to school, as it was so near to my home. The teaching at my school in Syria was great, and in Syria education depends on teaching during the classes, but in Egypt the children depend more on private tuition and their external books. Children have to pay more for this private education in Egypt.

In Syria everything was affected by the war, even the schools. Students had to go to another school to take their exams, but they were held at the same time as usual. This was the case in my school; maybe in other schools the students couldn’t continue their education, because their families were afraid or they couldn’t reach their schools because of the war. In my school, however, the teachers kept coming as usual. Before the war, my school had six grades and each grade was divided into four classes. Each class had sixty students.  During the war, there was a maximum of ten students per class. The teaching in the classes was better with fewer numbers. My favourite subject at my school was English, but my main hope was to join the science department at high school, then to go to medical school.

When I first came to Egypt, I went to a Syrian school for the first semester. In the second semester I joined an Egyptian school. I heard about the Syrian school from my friends who were already going there. It is not a real school; it is a centre with classes teaching the Egyptian curriculum. I had teachers for each subject, like in the normal seventh grade in Egypt. The teaching was the same as at a real school, but not the place itself.  It was informal, so we had to go and take our exams in Egyptian schools.  There were only Syrians in my classes, about sixty in each, and all students were from 6th of October City, Cairo. I wasn’t happy there, as it didn’t feel like a proper school. That’s why I joined the Egyptian school for the second semester.

I’m not happy at my Egyptian school because most of the students don’t focus on these classes, as they have their private lessons after school. Syrians suffer, because they can’t afford to take private lessons. Half the students are Egyptian and half are Syrian in my classes. At the beginning, it was very hard for me because all the Syrians sat at the back of the class and whenever we said anything, the Egyptian students would make fun of our accent. It was a new accent for them. Now, I don’t face problems with our accent in the classroom. Some of the Egyptians have made friends with the Syrians, but others have stayed the same as at the beginning. I made good friends with some Egyptians during the last month of school before the summer holidays.

In Syria, I was at the top of my class for seven years. Not only was I the top of my class – before I left Syria, I was the top of my whole school! I was well known amongst my teachers there, but here it is very different. I can’t find my place within education. I like to be recognised by my teachers, but here they don’t praise or recognise me. If we stay in Egypt, I will go to university but my main hope is to return to Syria and continue my studies there.

Most of my Syrian friends have gone to school in Egypt. One of them went to school when she first arrived, but dropped out after a month because she couldn’t understand the Egyptian accent. Many of my brother’s friends registered in schools when they got to Egypt, because they needed their residence here. To get a one year residence in Egypt, you must be registered at a school.  However after they had registered, they dropped out because they need to work. They came to the Child Friendly Space for a while, but couldn’t continue. They mainly work in factories.

It was very difficult for my father to register us in school. He suffered a lot to get us in. I don’t know the details, but he had to go to many government associations for stamps and other things for registration. They didn’t recognise my sixth grade certificate from Syria, so I had to retake my exams using the Egyptian curriculum so that I could register in the seventh grade here. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Education in Syria have to authorise the certificate, but we didn’t have time to do this before we left. I wouldn’t be happy if I went back to school in September, but it’s not my decision whether I stay or not – it’s up to my parents. The tuition fees are about 100 Egyptian pounds per year, which is the same for everyone – Syrians and Egyptians. My parents are able to give me the money to pay these fees. It is about fifteen minutes to walk to my school. I walk there with other boys and girls– my friends and my brother’s friends. There are also Sudanese children at my school. For every ten Syrians in a class, there are about five Sudanese, although some of the Syrian students go to classes at the Syrian schools. I like the atmosphere of the real school, rather than the community one. However, some children prefer the Syrian one because the accent is easier to understand. They are private so students have to pay 250 Egyptian pounds per month, which includes transportation. For orphans, they get exemptions from paying for transport.

There is no tension between Egyptian and Sudanese children, but there are some problems between Egyptians and Syrians. Sudanese children have been here for a long time, but we are newcomers so they still feel that we are strangers. When Egyptian children ask us about Syria, sometimes they cry when they hear about the situation. When they hear our stories, and what we lost, many of them start to cry. This changes their attitude to Syrians, for a little while. The teachers sympathise with us, because they already understand the situation in Syria. 

 *Names have been changed to protect identity