Published on Arab Voices

A School Called Uruguay: Managing the Syrian Crisis while Investing in Long-Term Development

With newspaper headlines focused on violence and political upheavals across the Middle East and North Africa region, it is easy to forget that an annual beginning is also underway. Children from the Mashreq to the Maghreb have started going back to school. Parents are buying school supplies for little ones and millions of teenagers are going down a path that may shape their future careers. This week, Voices and Views presents Back to School 2013 - a series focused on the challenges that both teachers and students face in the region, and the policies and programs that can change a generation. We look forward to your comments.


ImageIt was once located on the grounds of the Uruguayan Embassy in Lebanon, and the name has somehow stuck. Now, Uruguay Elementary School is in a new building in an altogether different, bustling area of Beirut. It is hard to recognize it as a school at first: a seven-story building among other tall offices and manufacturing plants beside a major thoroughfare.


It is quiet when we enter. The students have just left for the summer and so none of the characteristic noises of school – chalk on chalkboards, teachers lecturing, students whispering or sometimes giggling -- can be heard. Only the principal and key staff remain, busy organizing the end of the school year.

It is a relatively small school, comprising 206 students taught by 26 teachers. We have come to speak to the principal in the context of the second stage of an Education Development Project (called EDP II) that has just begun. The principal participated in the first stage and we were eager to hear how she has fared since then. From what we hear of her leadership and the care she and her team provide to students, this has all the makings of a good public school.

Uruguay Elementary School has only been in operation in its current premises for a year. We ask Mrs. Rouhana, the principal, if she might have heard of any Syrian students in the neighborhood. One or two perhaps? Since the conflict erupted two years ago, the Lebanese government has opened its doors to its neighbor, offering to admit every Syrian child of school age into the public education system. We wonder if there are any in this area of Beirut.  Mrs. Rouhana explains that there indeed are - in fact, a full third of the student body, 65 students, are Syrian.

In one year, 65 new students have arrived, the equivalent of two classrooms.

A little later that morning, we visit the Beirut district school office where we meet the director. He makes time to see us, even though he is overwhelmed with the 101 issues, both big and small, that crop up during the end-of-year exam period. Ignoring the calls on his whirring cell phone, he explains that while only 90 Syrian students enrolled at the beginning of the last school year in his district, 5000 have arrived since then. That is 5000 in the 47 schools in his district alone.

ImageApproximately 300,000 Lebanese school-age children attend public schools, while about 510,000 are registered in private schools. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that by the end of the year, 480,000 Syrians of school age (6-14) will be in the country. If these figures are correct, that’s about 1000 students, or four to five schools’ worth of new students, arriving every day.

It is easy to be left astounded by such staggering numbers, but that would mean missing the heart of the issue: whether Lebanon can manage this inflow depends on whether it is able to address these challenges at its frontlines – in this case, in each school.

Of course, those arriving are dispersed across the country. Some may enroll in private schools, if their parents have the means, many will opt for public schools, while many others, too, will remain out of school, their academic life abruptly ended.

There will be numerous challenges for the system. Providing access is only one. For the moment, only one school in the country, facing overcrowding, has had to switch to multi-shift teaching -- where the school body is divided in two, with half of the students attending school in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. Other schools will likely be forced to follow suit.

Uruguay Elementary School has plenty of space on seven floors, and for the moment they are generously staffed. However, if the number of new arrivals swells, finding enough teachers may be quite another challenge. Lebanon calls on contractual teachers to fill gaps, but it is not clear that even this will be adequate. Some have suggested calling on displaced Syrian teachers to help, but the recognition of professional qualifications and the differences in programs have prevented this so far.

For Syrian students enrolling in schools, the challenges are daunting, too. The children have had their lives disrupted, some having missed as much as two years of schooling. As teachers at Uruguay Elementary point out, not only are many of them at a great disadvantage academically, some are still deeply traumatized by events in their home country, and visibly suffering. The school counselors are doing what they can. For those who manage to adjust, differences in curricula remain problematic. Lebanese students begin studying foreign languages relatively early, taking math and sciences in English or French. For Syrian students, this presents a significant obstacle. The staff at Uruguay Elementary School explained how they had succeeded in helping some students, but others, even on a reduced program of study, were not doing as well. Some -- in spite of all the care -- might even drop out.

For Lebanese students, the challenges are subtle but also significant. The influx of new students can leave them disoriented.  There have even been reports of fights breaking out among older students. As one teacher explained: “What they need is order in their lives. That is one important, yet sometimes overlooked, aspect of schooling: it creates order in children’s daily lives. They all need it, all the students. We do our best to create predictable routines every day.”

The EDP II project focuses on developing the quality of public schools in Lebanon through a focus on Early Childhood Care and Education, School Leadership and Teacher Development and the improved management capacities of the Ministry of Education. No predictions suggest that the conflict in Syria will end anytime soon, and it is likely that the Syrian refugee crisis will have some impact on the project.

Nevertheless, the government, to its credit, prefers to keep the objectives of the project as they were originally planned. Every effort will be exerted to accommodate the new arrivals, while ensuring that the humanitarian crisis does not crowd out the need for long term investment in public education.


Simon Thacker

Education Specialist

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