BEIRUT -- Thousands of Syrian children from refugee families in Lebanon are not returning to school for the first time this autumn as a direct result of the nation's economic and financial crises, rights groups and refugees said.
Financial challenges, such as the high cost of fuel, textbooks and school supplies, have prevented many Syrian parents from enrolling their children in school.
Because of teachers' strikes, Lebanon's Ministry of Education postponed the opening of the country's public schools until October 11, Human Rights Watch said. The schools originally had been slated to open September 27.
No start date has yet been announced for the second-shift classes at public schools for Syrian refugee students.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates there are about 700,000 Syrian refugee school-age children in Lebanon.
Education was not available this year to a large number of these students, according to Hana Abu Abdullah, the mother of a refugee child living in Mazraat Yachouh.
"We are waiting for public schools to open their doors so I can enroll my children in the afternoon programme," Abdullah said.
"Otherwise, they will lose a school year, because we do not have the financial capability to enroll them in a private school, and the transportation cost for each child is 400,000 LBP per month."
Ali Muhammad Assaf, 11, said he will not attend school this year.
"My father is unemployed, which forced me to work at a grocery store for 30,000 LBP per day to help support my seven brothers, all of whom are young."
"A large number of families of Syrian students are facing the challenges of high fuel prices and lack of job opportunities that would secure a monthly income," said Mazyad Ali, a Syrian refugee who works for the Beyond Association.
The Beyond Association, a Lebanese non-governmental organisation, keeps track of Syrian refugees living in Lebanon, with a focus on those in the Majdal Anjar area near the Masnaa border crossing with Syria.
The cost of providing stationery, textbooks and transportation is out of reach for many refugees, Ali said.
Families who can afford to do so have registered their children in private schools with low tuition fees, he said, "after realising that there are no indications that public schools will be reopening".
Most schools have been closed, or operating online, for nearly two years due to teacher strikes and the coronavirus pandemic.
Those who chose private schools in Majdal Anjar still face transportation costs of 400,000 LBP per student per month, or even higher if fuel prices rise, Ali said.
The UN children's fund (UNICEF) and UNHCR, which support public schools and students, have been forced to draw back support, he said.
This has affected the families' ability to pay for their children's education, "and the result is the loss of these students' future".
Ali said he had enrolled his own four children at the privately run al-Makassed School in Majdal Anjar, paying 350,000 LBP in installments for each child per month for just the bus that takes them to school.
Though he struggles to afford it, he said his children's education is more important to him "than eating and drinking".
The families of school-age Syrian children in Arsal and throughout Lebanon are facing an enrollment crisis, said Abu Ahmad Saiba, who heads The Voice of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon.
Between 2012 and 2015, eight education centres were opened in Arsal, staffed with highly experienced staff, according to Saiba.
During that time, he said, 17,000 mostly refugee students of all ages received education, but without official certificates recognised by the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Learning.
The Lebanese government closed the unlicensed schools in 2019, and the students were referred to Lebanese public schools, which had space for only 40% of the number of school age students, Saiba said.
As a consequence, 6,000 refugee students dropped out of school, he said.
In the 2021-22 school year, UNICEF "will continue to support all children at risk, regardless of their nationality, with formal and non-formal education", UNICEF Representative in Lebanon Yukie Mokuo told Al-Mashareq.
"UNICEF will subsidise school fees and support families with school transportation for thousands of vulnerable Lebanese and refugee children and youth," she said.
It also will seek to reach nearly 40,000 out-of-school children and youth in vulnerable communities, "to provide them with accredited education opportunities", she added.
UNICEF will ensure the printing of textbooks for distribution in public and private schools; the provision of learning supplies for 100,000 schoolchildren; and the provision of technical and vocational education and training, she added.
This is in addition to monthly cash assistance provided to more than 80,000 Lebanese, Syrian, Palestinian and non-Lebanese children as part of the Haddi programme, she said, which can be used as parents see fit to support their child.