Where should an educational program begin?

As an educator, how do you prepare for the arrival of a new student into your class? Do you ask for a bit of background from their parents or perhaps even old teacher? Do you do some preliminary formal or informal tests? Do you find out where they went to school and make an assumption of approximately what knowledge and skills they will have based on their age and year level?

How would you work out a child’s education capital if virtually none of those things applied? Where would you start? Equally as important, what if you yourself are not a trained teacher but instead a volunteer within the camp who is giving your time and knowledge to assist the younger generation?

When considering the education capital within Za’atari it is important not to perceive the label “refugee” to be equivalent to uneducated. Adults within the camp come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are not educated beyond a secondary level themselves whilst others are professionals who have also had to flee Syria. In some instances, refugees are able to use their prior education to earn a living for themselves, but formal employment within the camp is extremely limited (Ledwith, 2014, p. 50).

In 2014, there were 3 schools operating in Za’atari and the Jordanian Ministry of Education promoted quality by certifying schools. However, only schools taught by Jordanian teachers could be certified. Syrian teachers are only able to work as assistants in these schools (Ledwith, 2014, p. 46). In 2014, up to 11 Non Government Agencies were delivering education to children aged 5 – 17 years within Za’atari (Ledwith, 2014, p. 11), including providing remedial education in an effort to allow students to catch up to the Jordanian curriculum (Ledwith, 2014, p. 48).

However, it appears the entrepreneurial avenues are some of the most common paths where adults and children attempt to create a niche for themselves, and this often overshadows education (Ledwith, 2014, p. 48). This may be by becoming merchants and setting up a restaurant or shop. Marrying off daughters is common, some as young as 13 years old.

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Figure 1, 2014

These statistics, along with the daily realities of formal and informal legal systems involving street leaders who oversee control of selected districts within the camp all create competition and challenges for educational programs.

An educational program that makes better use of its inhabitants’ skills and expertise (i.e. educational capital) may help reduce the “street mentality” that dominates life here. “Many forms of crime still exist. Smuggling, theft, violence, sexual- and gender-based violence, and armed-forces recruiting have all been observed in Za’atari. In addition, since the Jordanian government will not let refugees enter the general population without a bailout guarantee, illegal escaping of refugees and bailout guarantee forgery are common crimes in Za’atari” (Ledwith, 2014, p. 12).

The education capital in Za’atari is complex, to say the least. However, one thing is apparent – there is a  strong desire to improve the current “lifestyle” in Za’atari. “UN officials report that, due to the skill and mercantile drive of the Syrian refugees, Zaatari’s development has surpassed in six months what many camps see in 20 years” (Ledwith, 2014, p. 52). If this initiative and educational capital (formal and informal) could be redirected or channelled into programs throughout the camp for greater community good, including education, perhaps we could see similar progress in other areas as well.


Ledwith, A. (2014). Za’atari – The Instant City. Affordable Housing Institute. Retrieved on October 19, 2015 from http://www.affordablehousinginstitute.org/storage/images/AHI-Publication-Zaatari-The-Instant-City-Low-Res-PDF-141120.pdf

Figure 1. (2014). Za’atari – The Instant City. Affordable Housing Institute. Retrieved on October 19, 2015 from http://www.affordablehousinginstitute.org/storage/images/AHI-Publication-Zaatari-The-Instant-City-Low-Res-PDF-141120.pdf

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 http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/settlement.php?id=176&region=77&country=107. Direct link –  Za’atari Camp CCFA; Education/Youth Factsheet

Image 2 (2015). Retrieved on October 15, 2015 from http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/08/jordan-zaatari-schools-syrian-refugess.html


Tomorrow starts today….what the future holds for 21st century refugees.

The numbers are overpowering. The stories are devastating. The human cost is overwhelming. So much so, that much of the world seems to stand aside whilst the countries immediately affected attempt to step in and fix things.

What does the future hold? Given that our global society is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, it will take an ongoing global response to attempt to move forward.

In December 2014, the United Nations issued their largest ever appeal for a single crisis – $8.4 billion is necessary to meet the needs of those affected by the crisis, both inside and outside of Syria. $8,400,000,000. That is almost too much to comprehend. Often, only 50% or less is actually funded.

A Report from UNHCR showed that worldwide displacement was at the highest level ever recorded in history.

59.5 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2014.

59,500,000 people

That was an increase from 51.2 million people from 2013.

And an increase from 39.5 million people from a decade ago.

Most alarmingly is that half of the world’s refugees are children. 

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Image 1. (2015)

“Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum. If this were the population of a country, it would be the world’s 24th biggest. (UNHCR, 2015).

“The international community has to overcome its differences and find solutions to the conflicts of today in South Sudan, Syria, Central African Republic and elsewhere. Non-traditional donors need to step up alongside traditional donors. As many people are forcibly displaced today as the entire populations of medium-to-large countries such as Colombia or Spain, South Africa or South Korea,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres (2014).

The driving force for the acceleration in the rapid climb in the number of people displaced worldwide is due to ongoing civil war raging in Syria – now the world’s single-largest driver of displacement.

Every day last year on average 42,500 people became refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced, a four-fold increase in just four years”. (UNHCR, 2015)

The impact on the world is being felt now. It has been felt for the past few years as the numbers skyrocket. However, the global response has been out of proportion with the level of human need. “For an age of unprecedented mass displacement, we need an unprecedented humanitarian response and a renewed global commitment to tolerance and protection for people fleeing conflict and persecution.” (Guterres, 2015).

What does the future hold for a 21st century refugee? Without a committed, global contribution to respond to the crisis, I fear that many nations of the world who are physically removed from the greatest areas of conflict will turn a blind eye until they begin to experience a personal cost themselves.

And those nations will experience this cost in years to come if they are not directly affected today. Without dramatic change, we will see a generation of children, adolescents and young adults unable to contribute to their families and/or communities due to unaddressed psychological and physical traumas faced during their childhood, the ongoing lack of education to adequately prepare them for life as an adult in a global society and the ongoing financial cost to rebuild the war torn countries after the conflict eventually ends.

However, with a united global approach perhaps tomorrow really can start today and the future pathways of millions upon millions of displaced citizens around the world can be redirected? Priorities beyond immediate personal safety from war include education.  Parents, students and community members want a society that is educated, skilled and able to wish for a better future. Education of the next generation of learners, refugees and otherwise, can ideally help to raise global citizens from all corners of the world in an effort to avoid repeating the disastrous fallout we are experiencing today.

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Image 2 (2013)


Image 1. (2015). Retrieved on October 14, 2015 from https://www.mercycorps.org/articles/turkey-iraq-jordan-lebanon-syria/quick-facts-what-you-need-know-about-syria-crisis

Image 2. (2013). Retrieved on October 14, 2015 from http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/5112962/Syria-refugee-crisis-is-set-to-hit-2m-in-worst-humanitarian-crisis-of-21st-century.html


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.

Putting things in perspective

As Australia heads towards the start of warmer weather and into another summer season in a few months time, we begin to brace ourselves for the seemingly inevitable “bushfire” season. In fact, in parts around the country we have already seen bushfires blazing out of control, threatening communities with Mother Nature’s wrath.

I am reminded of one of Australia’s worst fires in recent years known as “Black Saturday” in 2009. With a combination of some of the worst weather conditions ever recorded for bushfire season, approximately 400 fires started on Saturday 7th February 2009. Over 1 million acres were burnt and the toll on human lives and communities was devastating. 173 people were killed by the Black Saturday fires, another 414 people were injured and over 2,100 homes were destroyed. A total of 7,562 people were displaced with entire communities having to be rebuilt.


In typical Aussie fashion, people stepped up. Volunteers appeared from all parts of the country ready to donate their time, energy, expertise, compassion and materials. It took considerable time, but with the dedication of many, communities and lives began to be rebuilt. The physical and psychological scars will remain with many from the events of Black Saturday, but when the crisis erupted, Australia essentially stopped in its’ tracks and did whatever was needed to help. And I’m sure the response would be similar in many other parts of the world when Mother Nature unleashes her force on humanity.

So, I now question why we seem to not be compelled to respond with as much determination or sense of urgency to the Syrian refugee crisis?

The number of people needing assistance inside Syria is estimated to be 12.2 million. That is the equivalent of the entire population of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Darwin needing assistance. The number of refugees who have fled Syria is estimated at 4.08 million, and literally rising by the day. That almost the same as Melbourne’s entire population. The Za’atari camp is now Jordan’s fourth largest city and “home” to over 80,000 refugees currently. That is over half of Darwin’s population. More than 200,000 people have been killed in the Syrian crisis in four and a half years. That’s the almost the same as all of Hobart.

The numbers of people directly affected are enormous. The destruction and humanitarian cost is the worst since World War II. Yet, why don’t we respond to this crisis in direct proportion to its scale when you consider our ability to respond to the devastation caused by disasters such as Black Saturday? Black Saturday was a day that scarred many Australians, figuratively and literally. However, when you consider that the number of Syrian who are displaced from their country and now living as refugees is 539 times larger than those displaced by Black Saturday, why is taking us as a global society so long to respond appropriately to their plight?


Is it because mankind has created this destruction? Or is it perhaps because we cannot imagine this being our own reality as it is so far removed from what many Australians know? Most Australians who have lived through one summer here know all too well the threat of Mother Nature during bushfire season, and when She strikes, we move in and do our best to protect one another.

Perhaps its time that we absorb the full intensity of the scale of the Syrian refugee crisis in order to better understand the humanitarian void that is desperately waiting to be filled. And it us as a global society who are going to have to fill it.

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).