Syrian refugee students in second grade wait for the start of their first lesson of the year at Fatih Sultan Mehmet Primary School in Ankara, Turkey, September 28, 2015.
Umit Bektas / Reuters

This March marks five grim years since 14 boys in Dara’a, Syria were imprisoned for writing “the regime must go” on a schoolyard wall. In their small protest, they unwittingly sparked a revolution.

Young people were at the heart of the Syrian Arab Spring, and they have borne the brunt of the instability that has followed. For example, in Syria 12,000 children have been killed since the start of the war, over three million children have been internally displaced, and unemployment among youth is now over 30 percent, up 11 points from pre-war levels. Likewise, before the war, education in Syria was free and two-thirds of the children—both boys and girls—went to secondary school. Now, nearly three million children in Syria have no access to school; their old institutions have been bombed out or are used as command centers.


Among the 1.4 million school-aged children who have fled to neighboring countries, 700,000 do not attend school. In Turkey, which has welcomed 663,000 school-aged children, teens are pressed into adulthood too soon. One of them is Ghufran Shlash—a petite 17-year old who was in eighth grade when an airstrike crushed her school. “I went to school, even when it was dangerous,” said Shlash, speaking of her life in Syria. But the airstrike “destroyed everything, not just the school, papers, books—all evidence that we had ever studied there.”

When her family fled to Turkey in 2014, they couldn’t find any school where Shlash could enroll. Without other real hopes for her future, two months after arriving, Shlash married a 22-year old Syrian working as a tailor’s assistant. He expected her to stay home, so she quit the job she had found selling handbags. “The hardest part about life now,” she said, “is that I can’t go out often…There’s no life here.”

Shlash’s story is not unique. The child marriage rate among Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan has more than doubled from 12 percent in 2011 to 32 percent in 2014, according to a UNICEF study. Having lost their homes and livelihoods, many parents marry off daughters to give them a better life and to guard against sexual abuse. Some girls, left with no educational or career path, push for marriage as a way to gain some agency in their lives, but once married their freedom is often severely restricted.  

Syrian refugee girl Nur El-Huda, 9, shows a drawing of her home in Syria, in her classroom in Yayladagi refugee camp in Hatay province near the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey, December 16, 2015.
Syrian refugee girl Nur El-Huda, 9, shows a drawing of her home in Syria, in her classroom in Yayladagi refugee camp in Hatay province near the Turkish-Syrian border, Turkey, December 16, 2015.
Umit Bektas / Reuters
Child labor and recruitment to armed groups are prevalent as well. As Zeynep Turkmen, a lecturer at Bogazici University and education expert, explains, migrant children face economic pressure to engage in, “begging, child labor, crime, prostitution, and radicalization.” Being in school offers protection from these harmful behaviors, but in such circumstances, education is a luxury that migrants cannot afford.

Not helping matters is that education doesn’t seem to be a priority for donors either. In 2015, donor governments gave $49 million through the UN Syria Regional Response Plan to pay for schooling for Syrian refugees. But the United Nations says it requires more than three times that amount. Meanwhile, Turkey has spent over $7.2 billion on 2.5 million Syrian refugees—an admirable sum (and more than any other country), but still not enough.

To be sure, Turkey, which recently appealed to donor countries for $89 million to support education for Syrians, has made strides in improving the odds for the 450,000 Syrian children who do not attend school in the country. Ankara’s initial response to the influx of migrants was mainly confined to some 20 camps on Turkey’s southern border; in those days, many assumed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly and that migrants would soon return home. But by 2014, when neighboring countries had closed their borders and Syrians were fleeing to Turkey in unprecedented numbers, officials began to address the needs of children outside of camps.

Although education alone won’t solve the problems in the region, without it, Syrians have no future.
Since 2014, Syrian education in Turkey has been governed under “temporary protection” legislation that gives Syrians rights, including the right to education in Turkish schools. A new framework rolled out at the end of 2015 sets ambitious targets to enroll hundreds of thousands of Syrians in “temporary education centers” where children learn in Arabic from a modified Syrian curriculum.

Still, for many children and young adults, what’s available now is too little, or it comes too late. “The hardest thing is when someone comes to my door and speaks to me in Turkish. I can’t understand and so I have to call my little sister to translate,” said Sabreen, a 16-year-old living in Sultanbeyli, Istanbul’s poorest district and a haven for Syrians.

Sabreen’s sisters, ages 10 and 12, enrolled in Turkish school when they arrived last year, but Sabreen had missed too much high school to start again in a new language. Catch-up courses are scarce, as are Turkish language programs. More temporary education centers have been built for primary school children. Older children thus have little chance to re-enter formal education.

Because Sabreen’s family worries about her safety in the neighborhood, she only leaves the house about once a month. Instead she passes her time behind drawn curtains in their cramped living room, texting with other girls who are out of school, or looking for learning resources online. Like Sabreen’s family, many Syrian families keep their teenage girls home, even when there is access to school, fearing that they will be harassed. Syrian women are seen by some as, “easy targets, in need, cheap,” Nof Nasser-Eddin, Director of the Center for Transnational Development and Collaboration explained. She added that desperation and exploitation has given rise to sex trafficking along the Syrian border.

Older boys, too, face difficult circumstances. Shlash’s younger brother, Ahmad, is 13 and is working to support his family in an auto-shop. According to Nasser-Eddin, the pressure on boys affects them psychologically and physically because, “they have to be masculine and take care of their family, but they are still boys.”

Girls walk to school in Old Aleppo, Syria, September 15, 2015.
Girls walk to school in Old Aleppo, Syria, September 15, 2015.
Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters
On February 4—as the United Nations presides over fraught peace talks in Geneva—donor governments will meet in London to make pledges to support education of Syrian migrants. Although education alone won’t solve the problems in the region, without it, Syrians have no future. In that light, education advocates’ request that governments pledge $1.4 billion, roughly what the United States spends on airstrikes in Syria in four months—or a dollar a day for each Syrian child out of school—seems on track.

Syrians can do a lot with a little money. Raghad Madakhane, who is featured in “A Syrian Teenager in Istanbul Takes Refuge in her Studies,” lives with both her mother and father in Istanbul, which she said makes her fortunate. They fled Damascus after police stormed their home and arrested her father in 2012 for no apparent reason. In Turkey, her father works day and night in a health clinic to pay for her tuition. She attends a private school for Syrian refugees that charges $230 a year in tuition. She hopes to be a doctor like her father—and maybe she will be.

When she lived in Syria, Shlash loved school—everything about it. She wanted to be a lawyer like her cousin. “My time in school was the best time in my life. Everything was good there,” she said, “But then I had to forget it.” Many others will, too, unless the world finds a way to take care of the generation that, back in 2011, dared to demand more.

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