By Caroline Pontefract, Director of Education, UNRWA/UNESCO Education Programme
Over the past 65 years, the UNRWA/UNESCO education programme has been providing quality and equitable learning opportunities for refugees, and is currently supporting 500,000 refugees in the Middle East despite the myriad crises the region has endured. In doing so, the programme has built, what the World Bank has described as “education resilience in four generations of refugees.”
Despite this experience, the onset of the Syria crisis brought new challenges for UNRWA: the challenge of continuing to ensure quality, relevant education for the Palestine refugee children from Syria; not just those internally displaced, but also to those forced to flee to Jordan, Lebanon and Gaza. Wherever they were the UNRWA students were in need of special support, to ensure that they could continue to access quality education, and help them to deal with the upheaval in their lives and the fear and the trauma that the crisis had brought.
UNRWA’s response to the onset of the Syria crisis was to work to strengthen its education system at all levels, for a strong education system will always be more resilient. For UNRWA that means a system where students are the centre of the learning process. It means having teachers and school principals who are professionally empowered and are strengthened by the support of their peers, within and beyond their own school; it involves parents and the wider community being involved on a day to day basis in the education of their children, and having education managers with a clear sense of direction and accountability.
But there was also a need to address the new and specific needs of children displaced within Syria and those who had fled to other countries where UNRWA works: Lebanon and Jordan. This required further strengthening the UNRWA education system alongside more immediate and innovative responses, For example, one innovative initiative was to develop self-learning materials – both print and electronic, such as UNRWA TV – to support children who could not access school in the usual way. These materials are now renowned across the region and UNICEF has worked to ensure its further distribution and dissemination to Syrian children.
There was increased need for psychosocial support, to help mitigate some of the trauma for those whose lives had been turned upside down, as their families sought to survive in the context of crisis and conflict. Here additional counselors were deployed to support UNRWA students in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and more time was given for children to play and have fun, in the playgrounds or in the newly established recreational spaces furnished with swings, roundabouts and slides. There was also a need to do what the UNRWA education team had not done before – actively support the safety and security of its students and education staff. School Principals were trained so that they were more confident in taking decisions, most crucially deciding when their school would open or close. Additionally, we created an SMS system which enabled principals to let parents know school opening times, so that they too felt more confident about sending their children to school. There is now ongoing training in place for teachers, other staff and, crucially, the students themselves on issues of safety and security. In addition, each school has, and practices, an evacuation plan.
UNRWA was born of crisis and continues to deliver education in crisis in the five Fields of operation where it works – Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the West Bank – facing new or ongoing challenges. Its experience in working to ensure quality education throughout and its determination to deliver quality, equitable and inclusive education, in line with the fourth Sustainable Development Goal in the coming years will be captured in its forthcoming Education in Emergencies Strategy. The experience of UNRWA, and our very tangible practices and products should also be of value to other agencies seeking to deliver education in emergencies.