Jesuit Father Fouad Nakhla speaks in Toronto about the plight of Syrian refugees who have lacked education since the conflict started in their homeland Photo by Jean Ko Din

Disaster looms without education for refugee kids

  • December 13, 2015

TORONTO - Syria’s civil war has seen families pulling their children out of school as they escape the growing violence and persecution in the area. Many have not been back to school since the war started in 2012.

Jenny Cafiso, executive director of Canadian Jesuits International (CJI), said this as a recipe for disaster.

“Right now, kids are just hanging around with nothing to do in camps or inside Syria in urban areas. There’s potential for them even now to be frustrated, to be angry and to be attracted to join rebel groups or other things,” said Cafiso. “Even if the war ends, you’ll have a generation of people who have not been to school and that will have huge implications in terms of rebuilding the country.”

On Dec. 1, CJI and the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) hosted an evening at Loretto College in Toronto where three humanitarian aid workers shared their experiences of what it’s like to work on the ground in Syria. All agreed that educating youth has to be a priority.

Jesuit Father Fouad Nakhla works with a JRS centre in the Syrian capital city of Damascus. Established in 2012 with a staff of 12, the centre was initially built to service refugees fleeing conflict in Iraq. With the conflict growing in its own backyard, the centre quickly expanded. Nakhla said there are about 600 new people coming to the centre every month. The centre originally focused on social work and education. Now, Nakhla said the centre has shifted its focus to education and opening classroom spaces for children.

“Last year, we received more than 300 children per day in a small space,” he said. “In September, we have a bigger house in another area, and there we have more space and we can work with about 600 more children.”

Nakhla said that in working with the Syrian children he sees a new way that the centre’s workers could give hope to its community. By giving the children a safe place to meet and learn together, it creates friendly bonds among families across the city.

“I think if we want to work with Syrians and to give some hope, it’s our way,” said Nakhla. “We give them a secure place... and we give an opportunity to talk and meet each other. I think in this way, we can reach a kind of reconciliation in the future.”

For now, however, increased social tensions and no political resolution in sight has constrained international humanitarian organizations in the aid they are able to provide. “Families are not fleeing violence in Syria only,” said Miriam Lopez-Villegas, international programs co-ordinator at CJI. “They are also fleeing the region due to the lack of humanitarian assistance in the country and at their first place of displacement.”

Lopez-Villegas said in order for humanitarian agencies to intervene, agencies need to respond to the crisis beyond what the local government can handle. But in reality, humanitarian agencies are constrained by a lack of resources and limited support from the local governments.

Loae Almously is a Syrian refugee who resettled in Canada last June. Before arriving, Almously worked in the JRS centre in Jordan for about two and a half years. He said he witnessed first-hand how the reduction of humanitarian services in the past two years has made life even worse.

“At the end of 2014, after the reduction of assistance for the (refugees in) Jordan, many people decided to go back to Syria, which was unsafe for many of them,” said Almously. “They said that the life became the same in Syria and Jordan because we don’t have the assistance we need to live. So, we had to go back to Syria to live there which was the wrong solution for many people.”

Almously said that although he and his family now live safely in Canada, he cannot forget there are still many others suffering back home. He continues his work here in Canada as an advocate for Syrians.

More than 120 people attended the panel discussion. Members of religious orders, local parishioners, private refugee sponsorship groups and other concerned community members came to learn about the plight of refugees.

“The goal (for the event) was to open a window into the reality in the region,” said Cafiso. “As we get ready to welcome refugees here... the vast majority of people are and will continue to be in the region. The people that are coming to Canada is a small minority and we need to continue to remember the needs of people there.”

The Canadian government pledged in September to match donations to Canadian charities up to $100 million from its Syrian Emergency Relief Fund. Last month, the government also pledged $100 million to support the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to help fleeing Syrians.

“I think it’s positive that they are also supporting UNHCR, but I would also say that it would be important for the Canadian government to support established Canadian non-governmental organizations that have a track record in the region,” said Cafiso.

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