Educational starting places in Za’atari

Teachers all around the world face the challenge of providing a stimulating, relevant and engaging educational program that is going to provide the knowledge and skills necessary to try and prepare our students for life in the “real world”. How then does a teacher prepare a Syrian refugee child living in Za’atari for this? For many, their “real world” experiences have shattered any chance of the innocence of childhood. Many bear the scars – emotionally, psychologically and physically. So, how can a teacher make a difference? What educational facilities are available to them?

The children and families of Za’atari face enormous challenges as they attempt to rebuild their lives from within the confines of an indefinite future of a refugee camp. No set timeframe of how long they will be there. No confirmation of if they will ever be able to go home to Syria or will they be able to start a new life somewhere else? It is uncertainty on top of more uncertainty. An ongoing liminal space.

But, days and weeks and months pass. Children get older and as they do they are continuing to potentially miss out on opportunities which will help them now and in the future.

Although the Za’atari camp is away from the terrors of war, there is still a level of fear, particularly for girls moving about the camp. Their safety against attack and (or rape) is paramount and often this can result in girls being kept hostage of sorts within the confines of their small tent or caravan. However, so much of the evidence collated from around the world today shows that the education of girls is paramount to the overall increase in improvements to local communities and society in general.

  1. Reduction of child and maternal mortality
  2. Improvement of child nutrition and health
  3. Lower birth rates
  4. Enhancement of women’s domestic role and their political participation
  5. Improvement in their economic productivity and growth
  6.  Protection of girls from HIV/AIDS, abuse and exploitation

“Girls’ education yields some of the highest returns of all development investments, yielding both private and social benefits that accrue to individuals, families, and society”. (Educating Girls Matters, n.d)

That urge to protect their children spreads to the boys as well, and many are restricted to staying nearby their families. However, progress is being made. Even with only 2% of international humanitarian aid being allocated to education, the numbers of children attending some type of formal education whilst living in Za’atari has increased. in 2013, a UNICEF report showed that attendance across all age groups was 51.6%. The figures from 2015 show an encouraging trend amongst the younger children, but a rapid dropoff without suitable upper secondary and/or tertiary options. Some feel that this is due to the perception that the degree with be worthless when they finally return home to Syria. More likely is the lack of any suitable upper secondary or tertiary options to pursue.

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Image 1 (2015)

Many adults and children are involved in education to improve their knowledge and skills, but also to contribute to the community and help pass the time. A teacher in Za’atari said “I graduated from my law degree and I was working as a trainee in Syria”. When he was asked why he had chosen to become a teacher. “I wanted to share my education with others rather than keep it to myself,” he replied. “I’m happy to be able to give back to the children living in this camp.” (Save the Children, 2014)

The facilities of the education spaces in Za’atari are varied. Physically, spaces are split – often one area for girls, one for boys; one classroom session for boys and one session for girls. “In a camp where there is little to do it’s so important to have an outlet to keep healthy and busy. “We now go to bed early because we have something to look forward to the next day,” said a 16-year-old with a smile. “I used to go to sleep at 2am but now by 9pm I am already in bed because I have a long day of activities ahead of me.” (Save the Children, 2014)

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Image 2 (2013)

Pleasingly, though, not all of the educational resources are as basic as one might assume. For example, Relief International runs a program which is designed to cover both the educational and psycho-social development of the children.

  • A remedial education center in the camp which provides classes in Arabic, Math, Science and English for grades 1-11. The remedial classes enable the children to develop their skills and stimulate their participation in their daily environment.
  • Classes for boys are provided in the morning as their formal education takes place in the afternoon and girls come to the center in the afternoon after their classes at the main school. There are four periods of 45 minutes including one for supervised recreational activities where students can enjoy competitive and team building activities, develop their imagination and learn to interact amicably with other students in an open space and a safe and environment. Most importantly, these activities promote a sense of normalcy by giving them the space, time and right to play as children.
  • Each class has a teacher as well as a case manager who ensures the child attends the remedial education classes regularly, tracks the child’s educational progress and provides individual follow up. Their role is also to provide additional guidance, monitor children’s behavior and help identify and work with children who need further psycho-social support.
  • Community mobilizers create a link between refugee families and the center, ensuring awareness about the services provided and information of how to access it, as well as the positive opportunities that extra educational support can bring.
  • To increase the safety of the children, community mobilizers also accompany students between the Relief International center and meeting points in the camp and the main school.
  • All teachers, case managers and community mobilizers are Syrians from the refugee camp. This creates understanding and trust between staff and children as they are familiar and have been through the similar experiences, whilst also providing employment to those living the camp.
  • Other staff are Jordanian from the local town, which also provides employment for those in the host community

(Relief International, 2013. and n.d)

Upon further investigation, the motivation and desire to provide the most educationally relevant and engaging programs whilst still overseeing and managing the wellbeing of each child has commenced through the work of agencies such as UNICEF, Save the Children and Relief International, to name a few.

Perhaps the challenge now is how can these educational facilities and program models be made accessible for ALL refugee children. And furthermore, what steps are necessary to transform them into experiences that provide a comprehensive end-to-end educational model (pre-school through to Tertiary) which will be relevant and meaningful for life beyond Za’atari.

After all, that is the hope of so many refugees confined to living there.



Image 1 (2015). Retrieved on October 15, 2015 from Direct link –  Za’atari Camp CCFA; Education/Youth Factsheet

Image 2 (2015). Retrieved on October 15, 2015 from


What role does 21st century education play for the children of Za’atari?

Educators, schools and government bodies around the westernised world today are focussed on ensuring they keep pace with the rapidly developing space of 21st century education.

Students of today have access to a vast array of resources, technologies and choices which were not readily available a decade ago, and some of which did not even exist 15 years ago. Facebook, for example, was founded in 2004 – that is only 11 years ago. However, this is a daily, sometimes hourly, aspect of many students’ lives today and most have no memory of life without it and other similar ways of connecting globally.

This video produced by the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership (AITSL) was shared with me by a peer. It helps to highlight the rapid growth in the future learning space as well as the impact and advantages these changes have for our students.

Considering that this video represents the momentum of much of the modern world’s educational focus today, where does that leave our Syrian refugee students? Many have had interrupted access to schooling throughout the last 4 years of conflict, but many have also ceased their education entirely. According to UNICEF, 68% of refugee children are not able to access schooling due to social, legal or economic barriers. With over 4.08 million refugees who have already fled Syria as of September 2015 it is estimated that half are children under the age of 18 years. Using UNICEF’s figures, that equates to approximately 1,387,000 refugee children under the age of 18 years who are not able to access education. 

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The gap that is apparent between the educational experiences of youth around the world today is certain to continue to widen unless the educational welfare of the Syrian refugees is addressed promptly.

Mercy Corps interviewed 150 Syrian refugee youths and asked for their words and pictures of what it was like growing up as a refugee. Their personal stories are emotional and moving, but importantly they demonstrate that they are all after a common goal – to be empowered and gain “recognition and respect for their skills and to contribute to their communities” (Streng, 2015).

Mercy Corps has recommended three main areas of focus in order to improve educational outcomes for the Syrian refugee youth.

  1. Reduce barriers to formal education and provide alternative learning models
  2. Develop job and leadership skills that improve future employability
  3. Provide activities that reduce isolation and improve adolescents emotional health and connection to their communities

Education is so much more than providing paper and pencils to learn literacy and numeracy skills. Yes, these skills are important, but so too are the abilities for refugee students to pursue future educational pathways, to develop a genuine connection to their community and for the ongoing psychosocial wellbeing of each child in order for them to contribute in meaningful and purposeful ways in the future. After all, these children are also 21st century learners.

I don’t think this is too much to ask, especially when you consider the educational luxuries that are available for other 21st century learners elsewhere around the world.

People helping people – “Roads to Refuge”

This site was shared with me by a family member and it has helped restore my faith in the good that can be done and achieved when people actively decide to help people.

Roads to Refuge is a site set up by the NSW Department of Education (Australia) in conjunction with The University of NSW and the Centre for Refugee Research. There are Education specific programs outlined, but my favourite information was found under the Education Partnership Programs page which contains information about partnerships with universities, government agencies and local schools all designed to achieve specific improvements in the educational experience (and lives!) of refugee children. It shows how sometimes just a little coming from one person can make a big difference in the life of another. And for refugees who may be unsettled and stuck in a liminal space as they try and adapt to another life here in Australia, actions such as these support programs can certainly help ease the ambiguity.

If you are unsure what support may be needed for a refugee arriving in Australia or you are looking to become more involved, this site will offer some practical strategies and links to current programs which may be able to be adapted or incorporated into your own school community.

Happy teaching!

UNHCR “Day in the life” footage of Za’atari

Thanks for this post must go to one of my peers, Hendre Roelink of The Trauma Informed TeacherHe kindly shared a link to a brilliant series of short episodes shot by the UNHCR showing the challenges within Za’atari.

I have posted links to each of the 14 videos to one of my pages, which you can find here. 

I think being aware of the living conditions, the massive scale and rapid nature of how quickly the “city” is growing are key aspects that are communicated clearly through these films.

They also provide a more informed context when considering what role education has within Za’atari for the tens-of-thousands of refugee children (at the time of filming in 2013 the camp population was 130,000 with 60,000 children and only 12,000 attending school).

A day in the life…

I was recently introduced to a moving virtual reality film titled “Clouds Over Sidra” by Chris Milk.  This film lets us walk in the virtual shoes of 12 year old Sidra, a Syrian refugee girl living for the past 18 months in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

To put it simply, the technology used to create such a realistic experience was awe-inspiring. To become totally immersed in this space through sight and sound was somewhat daunting as the enormous scale of the challenges facing our global society suddenly became very real. I would encourage you to view it using the virtual reality platform, even if you don’t have the Google Cardboard accessory.

(Click here for more information about this virtual reality technology)

As far as the eye can see are rows upon rows of caravans, or makeshift “homes” for the 84,000 refugees who lived there when this was filmed. The nothingness of the space was overwhelming – both the natural and the manmade landscapes are almost entirely devoid of colour and “life”. We get to experience Sidra attending school, something she and her circle of friends are extremely proud of. Yet, they walk hand-in-hand along chainlink fences topped with razor wire to get to class. We also learn of the children who don’t want to go to school because they are waiting to go home to Syria.

We see “boys being boys”, still keen to wrestle and fight even after all that they may have personally witnessed. We also see boys having access to computers to play games, most of them combat ones, which must strike a chord very close to their own realities. Yet, we see the limitations placed on the girls who are not allowed to use the computers, but are eager to. However, girls are allowed to play soccer even though they cannot play it back in Syria. But, playtime comes at a cost, as does so much else in Za’atari, as they have to “play quickly” because so many other children are waiting for a turn.

Although there is safety from the war in Syria whilst in Za’atari, this temporary space has become a somewhat permanent home for thousands upon thousands of children and their families. In fact, the children outnumber the adults. For the children in Za’atari, the days, months and years spent here will be part of their childhood. No one is quite sure just how much of their childhood will be spent here. All anyone can agree upon is that it would seem that it will not be safe to return to Syria any time soon.

The Za’atari population try to survive in this ambiguous space where they don’t have a home to move on to nor one to return to. Yet, many keep hope alive by waiting for the day when they can leave. It would appear that a goal as global citizens would be to ensure that the refugees can still fulfil a basic human desire of being allowed to dream and learn and grow whilst trapped in this space.

A point in time will come when people can safely return to Syria. And it is evident by the amount of destruction there today that it is going to require the skilled assistance of educated and experienced people to rebuild communities and lives. So, what is being done to ensure this happens? With so few children regularly attending school whilst affected by the war, both within refugee camps such as Za’atari and elsewhere, we are not providing adequate education for them now or for their futures.

Watching “Clouds Over Sidra” gave me a new appreciation of the refugee situation in Za’atari and of that affecting Syria, Europe and the rest of the world. And it is prompting me to think of what can be done by the likes of you and I – the bystanders who are physically so far removed from these circumstances that we find it hard to truly comprehend that these situations are in fact people’s lives, day after day after day.

I would encourage all educators to view “Clouds Over Sidra” and to consider allowing your students to do the same. It is an experience not to be forgotten, and hopefully one that will spark conversation about this topic that will perhaps lead to positive changes for our global society.

Happy teaching.

Education is key for Syrian refugees, wherever they may be.

I have noticed a resounding theme whilst researching further into the Syrian refugee crisis facing the global community. Beyond the immediate needs for safety, food/water, medical access and financial aid, a major need appears to be that of education.

According to reports by UNICEF, there are 13 million children who are deprived of education in the Middle East, with a significant number of them being in Syria. The relatively small number of refugees who do have access to limited education through the two main camps often have this disrupted as they are needed to work to help support their families.

Teachers in these regions also face enormous challenges. Since the beginning of the crisis in Syria, 52,500 teachers have left their posts, and those that do relocate often face barriers which prevent them from working. Teachers still teaching face obstacles with language barriers, lack of resources, children suffering from trauma, overcrowded classrooms or schools being damaged or destroyed. Class sizes in one of the main refugee camps, Zaa’tari, can be more than 120 children per teacher

UNICEF has reported that over 8,850 schools can no longer be accessed in Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Libya. These former places of learning have been damaged or destroyed, or they have become places of shelter for displaced families or are they are occupied by parties in conflict. 8,850 schools! Imagine the social, cultural and educational impact that the closure of 8,850 schools would cause in your own country. Even half that number. Even a quarter. The fallout is enormous.

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So, what is being done? What can be done? This situation is one of the ultimate liminal space – ambiguity and disorientation. However, waiting on the threshold for a change to occur one way or the other only appears to have delayed the educational progress of so many children.

Fortunately, even though the future is uncertain and unknown, programs are in place to assess and address the barriers facing refugees regarding education. Programs such as UNICEF’s “Back to Learning Campaign 2015/2016” is providing funding for formal and alternative education to 2.5 million children. This includes the “Self Learning Program” for children who do not have safe access to school. This aims to provide a self-study course to over 500,000 children in line with the national curriculum so that they can keep up with their education despite their circumstances. E-learning is another avenue that is being investigated for its obvious benefits in areas of conflict.

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What should our global goals be as we try to address this situation? UNICEF states the following:

  1. Reduce the number of children out of school.
  2. Support partners and national education systems.
  3. Streamline accreditation and certification.
  4. Step up advocacy to stop attacks on schools and education facilities.
  5. Prioritise funding for education in conflict-hit countries.

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“Syria needs its children to build a better future but education is more than just economics – it is about aspiration, hopes and dreams. After the trauma they have gone through Syrian children deserve to dream of new beginnings” (Chetty, 2015).

Happy teaching.


Chetty, D. 2015. The Conversation: Education for refugees can help save Syria’s lost generation. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from

Lee, M. 2015. The Guardian – Education without Borders. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from

UNICEF. 2015. Education Under Fire: How Conflict in the Middle East is Depriving Children of their Schooling. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from

UNICEF. 2015. Syria Crisis – Monthly Humanitarian Highlights and Results. Retrieved on 6th October 2015 from