Ala’a Ali is 16 and dropped out of school last year. She was one of more than 260 refugee children who dropped out of UNRWA schools in Syria last year. This statistic, which constitutes a 0.4 dropout rate, is seemingly low, but remains unacceptable for the staff of UNRWA’s education department, who have launched a new programme for inclusive education to help students like Ala’a.
“Low achievement in school is very complex. We co-ordinate with the social services department and the health department to work together on this issue,” explains Hamzeh Azimeh, one of UNRWA’s special needs school supervisors.
Girls in particular have to overcome unique hurdles in their academic careers. “I look at low achievement as an outcome of a combination of factors like household problems, health issues, and economic realities,” explains Wafaa Arab, a school counsellor supervisor at an UNRWA school, “girls face added challenges such as early marriage and being expected to take responsibility for the household.”
Ala’a was lucky; she was convinced by her parents and her school to return to her studies. “I didn’t come back because I was motivated, I was forced to,” she explained. “But day by day I began to realise that this programme was best for me, and that if I want to achieve my dreams, I need to study hard and attend the extra classes.” Ala’a now plans to become a teacher.
Tackling root causes
The inclusive education programme began by documenting the underlying causes of school dropout. Students who leave school early gave various reasons for doing so, such as a parent’s death, their own marriage, the need to earn an income, mental health issues, and a lack of academic support. Nearly all students said that they left because of multiple overlapping factors.
At the beginning of the year, the programme began to tackle some of these root causes of school dropout. Working with 1,025 of the most at risk students from, the programme focuses on the most difficult courses in the curriculum: Arabic, English and mathematics, and gives students extra support in these subjects.
“Nearly 40 per cent of this group of students, some as old as the eighth grade, are illiterate in Arabic”, said Hamzeh.
Support classes are held outside of normal school hours, with specially trained teachers and small class sizes. Personal files are kept on the progress of all students, play and relaxation is encouraged as part of the learning experience and guidance and career counseling is provided. Every class is visited by advisors to support the work.
UNRWA’s inclusive education staff also work hand-in-hand with the student’s family members and lobby local businesses to hire adults in preference to school-age children. In this way the programme has an impact outside the classroom as well.
“We have a saying in Arabic”, Azimeh muses. “'The child is the father of the man.’ If he is illiterate, how can he provide for his family? If she is uneducated, how can she improve her community?”
Text and photo by: Travis Lowry
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