The Syrian Refugee Crisis: Saving the Lost Generation and the Communities that Serve Them

Edward M. Gabriel (Ambassador to Morocco, 1997-2001)

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The Syrian refugee crisis is nearing a tipping point, beyond which no near-term solutions are possible. On this website, many of us have discussed policy options to stem the Syrian crisis and get to the negotiating table. In the meantime, we have a crisis that can’t wait for diplomacy or military action: the lost generation of uneducated young refugees, and the host communities struggling to bear their weight.

More than four million Syrians have fled the country, mostly to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq. Though in absolute numbers Turkey hosts the largest community, about 30% of Lebanon’s population and 20% of Jordan’s population are now Syrian nationals. To the 4 million refugees, add the 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced and you end up with about half of Syria’s population as either displaced or refugees. One-third – and as much as half – of the housing stock and a large percentage of economic infrastructure have been destroyed or damaged in Syria, and mistrust of the current Syrian security forces abounds. Without homes and jobs and fearful of the government, refugees will not return any time soon and host countries will have to cope with refugees for years to come.

Given the circumstances, the international community must face two most important realities. Nearly 3 million Syrian children – refugees and Internally Displaced Persons – are out of school and represent a lost generation who are hopeless, desperate and potential targets for terrorist recruitment. And, unless Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey receive greater assistance for communities servicing the refugees, these front-line countries risk destabilization, making matters worse for Europe and beyond.

In Lebanon for instance, out of 510,000 school-age Syrian refugees, only 21% are in Lebanese public schools. An even more alarming statistic: secondary school enrollment in Lebanon for Syrian refugees is an abysmal 2%! One doesn’t need to explain the security and economic implications for Syria’s future and the host countries of having an accruing number of refugee youth aged 15-18 out of school.

Given the average $600 cost of educating additional students in Lebanese public schools and the more than 1 million Syrian children out of school in the three countries, the international community cannot cope with this problem in a cost-effective manner without new, creative measures.

One such creative measure is e-learning. The incremental cost of educating a refugee child through e-learning is a sixth of the traditional cost: $45, plus $50 per student for shared laptops, tablets, Xboxes, etc. This is a great, cost-effective alternative and complement to traditional schooling. E-learning can be conducted in community centers already established for the refugees, and rotational instructors can give more structure to the learning experience.

There is good access to the internet among the refugees, and e-learning has been successfully employed in remote areas of Ethiopia and India that are far less propitious for internet connectivity and computer literacy than Lebanon, Jordan, or Turkey. And children are amazing in how rapidly they adapt to new technologies. Most importantly, on-line learning can be deployed quickly, with the Lebanese and Syrian curricula already digitized.

The second most important consideration is helping host communities better deal with the refugees through win-win solutions. In Lebanon, refugees live in more than 1600 communities, straining housing, electricity, education, health care, sanitation, access roads and security. Though Jordanians and Lebanese have shown tremendous generosity, they have limited resources, and refugee fatigue and frustration have already set in. New investment funds can be established by the international community and private sector for “social entrepreneurs” to devise innovative ways of providing services to the refugees and marginalized communities hosting most of the refugees. International aid agencies frequently provide cash transfers to the refugees and entrepreneurs should look upon refugees as consumers. Such funds have proven successful in other regions of the world and can work in this case as well.

Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq are in an emergency situation, which requires emergency solutions. As the refugee crisis in Europe showed, the spillover from Syria will not be contained to Syria’s neighbors. Let’s at least give the refugee children the educational basis for a productive future and a way to resist the allure of extremist ideologies. And let’s give the host communities the chance to reap some benefit from their generosity.

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