On 18 and 19 May, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Syria field education programme held its annual conference in Damascus to prepare for the forthcoming school year and to reflect on its achievements in promoting education for Palestine refugee children in spite of myriad challenges in Syria.
Held under the slogan ‘Development and Educational Support for Children’, the conference drew more than 200 teachers, head teachers and education specialists from UNRWA schools across Syria. Participants benefited from vibrant discussions and analyses of the variety of adaptations and innovations that enabled UNRWA to continue to offer quality learning opportunities for Palestine refugee children in spite of the severe conditions of armed conflict in Syria. From the considerable experience garnered so far, lessons were distilled to guide teachers to strive and attain even higher standards of teaching and learning in UNRWA schools. The conference was attended by a number of senior staff from the Ministry of Education, the General Administration for Palestine Arab Refugees (GAPAR) and UNICEF, as well as UNRWA staff from both the headquarters and the field.
In his introductory address, Michael Kingsley-Nyinah, Director of UNRWA Affairs in Syria, expressed his gratitude and thanks to these partners for their consistent support to UNRWA. “This support is indispensable to UNRWA’s ability to provide a quality education to the refugee children, even in times of uncertainty and stress”, Mr. Kingsley-Nyinah said. He praised the teaching staff for their dedication and commitment. “We are humbled by your incredible ability to put aside your personal hardships and to continue to give the best of your energy and attention to the children in UNRWA schools.”
He appealed to the teaching staff to maintain their thirst for knowledge and self-improvement and to sustain their commitment to reform. Mr. Kingsley-Nyinah said: “Excellent teachers combine imparting knowledge and skills with compassion and care for children.” He asked UNRWA teachers to “make every UNRWA classroom a place where children feel protected and cared for, a place where no violence exists”.
Ali Mustafa, Director-General of GAPAR, thanked the Syrian government and the Ministry of Education for their continued and support to UNRWA and Palestine refugees. “The fact that the Ministry of Education allows UNRWA to use the afternoon shift in 43 government schools testifies to the generosity and hospitality of the Syrian government”, Mr. Mustafa said. “UNRWA and GAPAR are one team working hand in hand to provide the best services to Palestine refugees”, he added.
Dr. Caroline Pontefract, UNRWA Director of Education, began by reiterating the excellent work that had been done by the education staff in these difficult times. She talked about the need to reflect on these successes, but also to address the challenges and opportunities in moving forward. She then described how the two days provided the space for this review, reflection and coherence, highlighting particularly the need to consider the reform programmes and education in emergency-specific interventions together, under the categories of learners, teachers, school principals, community and school organization and safety.
The conference shared highlights of UNRWA achievements in the emergency response, supported by the European Union (EU) Instrument for Stability (IfS) and the Educate a Child programme of Qatar’s Education Above All foudnation. These include the increased enrollment of children - approximately 41,000 students were enrolled by May 2014 – and a multi-stranded approach to emergencies, with support for students through the development and publication of comprehensive self-learning materials to enable children to study at home and in other safe locations; the establishment of a psychosocial support framework, including the appointment and traning of 45 counsellors to offer informal support to traumatized children; recreational equipment and activities for the students; and awareness-raising regarding safety and security in teachers and children.
The conference also honoured Mohammad Ammouri, the Chief of the UNRWA Syria education programme, who will retire from the Agency on 31 May after 41 years of service. Mr. Ammouri’s leadership and achievements were applauded by conference participants.