Sixteen-year-old Yehya from the Syrian city of Homs had a perfect academic record and thought he was only two years away from realising his dream of joining a much-coveted medical course in Damascus.
But after his school in the neighbourhood of Bab Amr was bombed in February and fierce fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels forced him and his family to flee to Lebanon, his dream now seems distant.
According to UNICEF, up to 70 per cent of Syrian students aged between 15 and 17 who attended Lebanese public schools dropped out last year.
Yehya spent the last academic year without schooling. He briefly joined a public school in the Lebanese town of Akkar soon after the government there announced schools would welcome Syrian students. But the differences between the two countries’ curriculum made a smooth transition for Yehya impossible.
“I dropped out from the public school after two weeks,” he told Al Jazeera. “I did not understand a word. I was the worst student in the science classes. I was the best when I was in Syria.”
Syrian public schools teach most science subjects in Arabic, while in Lebanon they are taught in French or English. “I do not even know how to say hello in French,” Yehya said.
According to UNICEF, up to 70 per cent of Syrian students aged between 15 and 17 who attended Lebanese public schools dropped out last year. Most could not overcome the language barrier.
“Despite this, the UN continued to urge Syrian students to attend Lebanese public schools and continues to do so,” Imtisal, a Syrian teacher who fled to Akkar from Homs, told Al Jazeera.
“Students who would be joining at grade 1, 2 or 3 can integrate in the new system. But those older will never be able reach to the level of their Lebanese classmates,” she said.
Imtisal says forcing Syrian secondary and high school students into Lebanese public schools is counter-productive.
“These children have come out of a war situation and most of them have witnessed atrocities. It only adds salt to injury to place them in school classes teaching a different system and in languages they simply do not understand.”
In preparation for this academic year, UNICEF supported summer camps for hundreds of Syrian students to improve language skills. It has also set up intensive remedial classes.
But Syrian students in Lebanon public schools are still unable to cope, prompting many families to place their children in religious institutions in villages in northern Lebanon that focus on religious education, rather than scientific education.
The rush to join religious schools dismays Imtisal. “These institutes have attempted to fill the need of children for education, but this is not the path I wish my pupils would be driven into,” she said.
UN organisations acknowledge the odds are stacked against Syrian children in their new environs.
“We know that it is not easy, but [students] have to try to manage and adapt,” Suha Bustani, UNICEF spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
“The Lebanese government opened its public schools to Syrian students, and we in the UN can only work with the governments. So we can only work within [this framework],” Bustani said.
The large number of children pose another challenge. According to the UN, there are now at least 19,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon aged between 5 and 17, with unofficial estimates putting that number much higher.
In a desperate act to save the children from their ruinous predicament, teachers like Imtisal have begun imparting classes at their own homes with the help of Syrian textbooks.
“I taught the Syrian curriculum to 15 students in my house last year. That is the maximum number my home could fit,” she said.
“The Syrian school books are full of pictures of Bashar al-Assad and quotes by [his father] Hafez al-Assad. We tried to remove all of those.“
– Sheikh Ayyach Ahmad, imam at a mosque and administrator of a school
Alarmed at the discontinuation of studies, a school has been hastily set up in the Lebanese village of Bebnine with the help of the US Agency for International Development Office to accommodate 350 Syrian students.
“We found that this is the only way to keep some of the students off the streets and to compensate for the loss of a generation of Syrian doctors and engineers due to students being out of schools for two years,” Sheikh Ayyach Ahmad, the imam at a mosque in Akkar and administrator of the school, told Al Jazeera.
The school has begun teaching a remodelled Syrian curriculum to the students, after purging the books of pro-government propaganda.
“The Syrian school books are full of pictures of [President] Bashar al-Assad and quotes by [his father] Hafez al-Assad. We tried to remove all of those,” Ahmad said.
The curriculum cleansing has meant scrapping the “national education” that was taught daily back in Syria. The subject aimed at indoctrinating students with the goals of the ruling Baath Party, along with the achievements and quotes of Hafez, “the immortal leader”.
A new version of the texts was printed and distributed to students for free.
But the noble initiatives have done little to allay the fears of Syrian students. For one, the Syrian school in Lebanon is an informal set-up and not recognised by either Lebanese or Syrian authorities.
With a view to tackle the problem, a group of Syrian academics and activists have come together to form the Syrian Educational Commission in Lebanon.
Mahmoud, a veteran teacher and former official at the Syrian education department, is a founding member of the commission. He said the aim of the group, based in the northern city of Tripoli, is to streamline an “Assad indoctrination-free” Syrian syllabus, partner with Lebanese private schools willing to teach it, and award certificates recognised by the Lebanese government.
“We also want to ensure that our children get the best and most neutral education. A lot of Lebanese private schools do not offer that. Most of them are funded by different religious and political factions. So having oversight over the education of our children is another important aspect of our work,” Mahmoud said.
“We want all Syrians to have an education suitable for all Syrians. They can form their political views outside of schools when they are older.”
The Syrian commission has already had a measure of success.
|Some 300 teachers will teach the Syrian curriculum in Lebanon [Al Jazeera]|
Al-Iman Schools, a chain of charity Islamic schools in northern Lebanon, has agreed to accommodate 6,000 Syrian students in seven of its premises.
Some 300 teachers will teach students the Syrian curriculum prescribed by the Syrian Educational Commission.
According to Walid Wolley, a director at the school, the Lebanese ministry of education will recognise certificates awarded Syrian students after completion of their studies.
They would, however, still have to sit for the Lebanese Baccalaureate – the examination undertaken after Grade 12 – in order to qualify for most universities.
Challenges notwithstanding, Yehya has rediscovered some hope in the sea of uncertainty.
He just enrolled in the al-Iman School and is waiting to resume studies where he left off.
“I want to study medicine in Damascus,” Yehya says. “There are three more years to go before I reach Grade 12. Maybe Assad would be gone by then, Syria would be free, and we would all be back.”