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Can Syrian refugee children homeschool?

Discovering homeschooling in an agricultural camp

In August 2016, I found myself in a Turkish Syrian refugee informal agricultural settlement nicknamed “Big Daddy”, after the patriarch leader of the large extended family living there at the time. After delivering some food stuff and toiletries, my co-volunteers and I were drinking tea on a carpet outside a makeshift tarpaulin tent. A little girl picked up the pencil that fell from my bag, and asked if she could keep it. Soon, a dozen other children gestured that they too would like a pencil. The following day, Andrew, a young American volunteer who drove out to the informal camps daily with basic food supplies, delivered for me US$100 worth of pencils and notepads to the 29 children in the camp. That evening, in the Syrian restaurant in Basmane, Izmir, where local and international volunteers mingle with Syrians, I asked how my donation was received. “Hmmm”, Andrew mused, “it was strange. I gave out all the pencils but as I was about to give out the exercise books, Big Daddy took them saying he would keep them for the school.” My ears pricked up – school, what school? The children in that camp did not go to school….

We soon learned that young Hassan, an 18 year old who had been schooled up to grade 9 in Syria before the war, and his 15 year old wife Rayan, were teaching Arabic letters to the smaller children in the camps. They taught in between their two daily shifts harvesting tomatoes, or in the evenings. They had a white-board, without markers, no educational materials, and barely any pens or paper.

Ever since I started to homeschool my own children a few years ago, I have wondered whether this way of learning could help fill a gap for displaced children who are unable to attend school. I have searched the internet and so far found no evidence of this approach to learning for Syrian refugees: the literature details the numbers of refugee children out of school (about half), and the concerted efforts, campaigns and funds rightly focused on getting all children into school. My question was, and remains: while displaced and refugee children are not at school, and until they can get there, can they learn, even just a little, at home or in temporary informal classrooms?

The first pilot: A pop-up classroom

Two days later, on the way to the airport, the refugee homeschool project was born. That morning, several of us set out to the camp to see if we could support Rayan and Hassan’s efforts: Andrew the American volunteer; Ali, a young 23 year old Syrian, formerly a student from Salamiyah and Andrew’s partner in the food distribution programme; Aysegul, an ebullient Turkish volunteer teacher and I. At the camp, after waiting for their return from the fields, we watched as Rayan and Hassan lead a class in Arabic and Maths. They set up the white board, now with markers, and the children flocked to the shade of the tree outside the teachers’ tent. You can see a few seconds from this moment here.

Shortly after the class started, I experienced a genuinely life-affirming moment. At about 3 pm, the rest of the workers returned, including several children, walking along like little adults, tired and sweaty under the afternoon sun. One in particular, perhaps about 11 years old, caught my eye. He saw the class taking place, ran to the one tap in the settlement and doused himself in water before grabbing his notebook from his tent and running to join us. And here he was, a child again. He was eager and proudly went up to the board to write out the answer to 2×4. Everyone clapped when he got the answer right, and he beamed. He drew a couple of vegetables, smiling away and proudly showing us his drawing. All this after eight hours of picking tomatoes in the extreme heat.

Thanks to some generous donations from family and friends who read my Facebook updates, I was able to start up the project with immediate effect. Andrew took on project management (on a voluntary basis) and Ali became the support and monitoring officer. Our funding enabled a small stipend for Ali, an an hourly rate equivalent to agricultural work for the teachers to enable them to work less in the fields and teach longer hours, printing worksheets and stationary for the children, and the costs of transport to the camps from Izmir once a week.

“I look forward to lessons with Hassan and Rayan so much. I never went to school in Syria because of the war, and I hope we can carry on learning, because I want to have an education like other children”. (Raghad, 11 years old)

The children’s eagerness was palpable. And when the teachers were in session, they learned fast. In addition, volunteers such as Aysegul and Sara from Morocco gave lessons in Turkish and Arabic during their weekly visits and did informal teacher training, giving tips on how to make the classes more inclusive for a group of children with with a diverse range of ages and  academic proficiency. However, their eagerness for education was hampered  by the harsh realities of life in the camps. The teachers and older children were all obliged to work in the fields, so despite our hope for the class to be held daily for several hours, it was only held for  an hour or two a day, at best. The Turkish farmers were not willing to let two hard workers stay away from the fields, and the families needed the children’s income, however paltry. Teaching remained a snatched activity in between shifts or at night – or, as often happened, not at all, despite our wage-match. At the end of October, with the end of the agricultural season, the families left the region, as did our project manager Andrew, so the project came to a natural end.

While the children learned their alphabet, we learned too from this pilot project. A small amount of homeschooling was viable in that camp, with a lot of external support beyond the provision of the materials – supporting the teachers and keeping the momentum going for families with so many pressing other priorities. We also learned that the motivation of the teachers needs to match ours, and, in the desperation of their financial situation, the teachers clearly had other priorities. However, despite all the problems in the field, teacher Rayan was clearly proud of their achievements over two months, stating with only a little enthusiastic exaggeration: 

“Teaching was so much easier once we were provided with the materials and worksheets. When we started teaching, none of the younger children could read or write. Now they all have basic literacy and numeracy, and some of them can multiply.” (Rayan, October 2016)

The new homeschool project is born, December 2016

While we were saddened by the inevitable end of this first experiment and having to say goodbye to the loveliest of children, the results spurred me to test further my idea of independent learning for refugee children. Given quality materials and the support of a parent / older sibling / neighbour, could children study independently at home, even just a little, when school is not available to them? This time the focus would be on learning within a household, without paying anyone to teach, rather than communally in the “classroom” as in the Big Daddy camp. See our Refugee Homeschool Education Fund page for more details.

The longer term…..

While I am delighted by the learning, however small, that the 60 children involved in our projects to date have enjoyed, my longer-term objective in running these pilots is to see if there is a way to introduce the concept of independent learning into emergency education debates.

While access to school is a fundamental and basic human right, how can children be supported when formal education is not a current option for them? How can children temporarily out of school best re-engage with learning and thus be better prepared to start or return to full time education in due course? I don’t have the answers yet, and I am certainly learning very fast the complexities involved. I remain convinced, however, that home-based independent learning offers a viable interim solution.

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