Manar, a Syrian refugee in Istanbul, smiles at me through the phone screen. She pans the camera around the bare room and kids in clusters wave. Manar lives in this three-room apartment with her husband and nine children (five theirs and four orphaned nephews). Her eldest son, Omar, age 17, dropped out of school years ago. When they fled Syria, he was in third grade. Like millions of Syrian refugee children, he struggled to fit into the Turkish school system and to learn the new language. Eventually he stopped going to school and started working instead. His asthma prevents him from leaving home during the pandemic. Manar says shyly, only after I press her, “Our lives haven’t changed much during the quarantine. I stayed at home a lot before anyway.”
As I chat with the children, my mind swirls with the impossible math. Eleven people quarantined in three rooms. Homeschooling in a foreign language. I try to make sense of their “new normal” and fail.
Exhaustion, of course, is relative. We feel it as parents in 2020 America. The winter of COVID doom is here, with virus numbers skyrocketing and stay-at-home orders being issued once more. One of the biggest stressors for families is their children’s education and uncertain futures. Not many people can fully understand what Manar and her husband have been going through, but millions of us could learn from their experience – not as pandemic parents, but as refugee ones.
In the last 10 years, millions of Syrian children were violently displaced from their homes. Tens of thousands more have been born into displacement. These refugee children have experienced trauma, bear the scars of war, and have had their school lives disrupted if not permanently interrupted. To host countries, the prospect of millions of uneducated, traumatized young children growing into uneducated, traumatized young adults was a disaster waiting to happen. How do you educate children at scale, quickly, and without a school infrastructure?
In the refugee education space, variations of online learning have emerged from the last decade of global tech hackathons and humanitarian agencies’ “innovation” labs. From pre-loaded tablets to MOOCs (massive open online courses) and schools-in-a-box, these quick solutions favored distanced learning with the high ratios of students to teachers and low costs.
These overly-optimistic solutions were not only out of touch, but they were born out of the same principle of scarcity that most “aid” solutions favor for refugee and marginalized communities. Give them just enough to get by. Any schooling is better than nothing.
But is it really? What about a child’s mental health? What about teen socialization? What about the importance of face-to-face interaction with competent and empathetic teachers?
If you think navigating your children’s schooling during a pandemic is hard, try being a Syrian refugee mom.
In another bare room, in the Jordanian city of Irbid, fresh university graduate Anwaar explains in her nearly-perfect Jordanian accent that she studied journalism because she knew that Syrian stories were important to tell.
Originally from Homs, Anwaar and her five brothers and sisters arrived from Syria in 2013. Though Anwaar and her older sister Nour aren’t mothers in the traditional sense, they were forced to take on parenting roles. Their mother was killed in the war. Their father, who holds a Ph.D. in chemistry, has been detained by the Assad regime since 2012. They still don’t know his fate. Anwaar and Nour, a pharmacist, raised their four younger brothers and sisters while putting themselves through high school and university. They make money by tutoring Syrian and Jordanian students in English. She says this work is easier to do now in the pandemic, though they find it difficult to tutor their clients while keeping up with their siblings’ studies as well.
Anwaar worries about her younger sister, Ghufran, who graduated from high school this spring with the highest marks in her class. She wants to be a doctor, but she won’t be able to attend university without a scholarship. While parenting her siblings, Anwaar’s goal is to earn a doctorate like her father. She says, “I want to prove to people that we are worthy of respect, even if we are refugees.”
In Beirut, with its collapsed economy, corrupt government, and the tragic Aug. 4 blast that ripped the city apart, the pandemic almost seems to be an afterthought. For Syrian refugees in Lebanon, it’s even more bleak.
“We live a tragic life. My children haven’t experienced life,” Abeer laments. She’s a young Syrian widow living in Burj al-Barajneh, a Palestinian refugee camp, with six children — three of them triplets who were born refugees. In 2015, Abeer’s husband stepped out to buy diapers for their 4-month-old babies. He never returned home. He was killed along with 42 people in a bombing claimed by ISIS. Abeer’s older daughter suffers from the psychological trauma of that day. “She had beautiful handwriting once,” Abeer says. “Now she can’t speak properly.” For the older three children, virtual school has been a challenge. They have one smartphone to share and Abeer can’t keep up with the online learning. For the 5-year-old triplets who are eager to go start kindergarten, Abeer finds a cynical silver lining to the pandemic. “I’m happy that the schools are closed for everyone now because I can’t afford to send them.”
Jawaher, another Syrian refugee widow in Beirut, was kicked out of her building with her four children this summer. The Lebanese landlord no longer wanted Syrian tenants who may spread the virus in his building. Her family found a new home that was near the port. When the blast shook their building and shattered the windows, the children ran outside barefoot on the broken glass, screaming like they used to after the bombs fell in their village outside Aleppo. After the dust settled, they kept asking her: “Is it a war? Will it be like Syria? Tell me, is it a war?” Her eldest son, Omar, age 12, worked for a while with her to provide for the younger kids. But the odd jobs they were able to snag have disappeared, between the economy and the pandemic. This year she doesn’t think they can afford school for any of them.
The pandemic has taken a toll on refugee life far beyond surviving the actual disease. How do you stay home when you barely have one? Or study online when you don’t have wi-fi or a smart device? The expectations are insurmountable.
When families like Anwaar’s overcome unimaginable challenges like these, we label them as “resilient.” But what are the ethics of resilience? Why is resilience expected of the oppressed and marginalized? Why do we marvel at their ability to overcome obstacles and despair while for the rest of us it’s totally acceptable to tear each other apart on social media about “mask politics” while rushing to hoard paper towels and toilet paper?
Maybe if we had actually figured out how to deliver high-quality, virtual and hybrid learning to those who need it most — in the camps, after hurricanes, in underfunded schools — those models would have been ready to use with our own children when we needed it. True humanitarian solutions are ones that are designed to serve human beings in the way we would have wanted for ourselves and our children.
We know now that it’s impossible to work while caring for young children. We know that school is not just a building where a curriculum is delivered to students. We know the technology can’t be the solution alone; it needs to be supplemented with strong community support, mental health resources, and a network of social services. We are learning new ways to work, to learn, and live through these challenges.
But all that we learn and create right now can’t be only for us and our children.
One of the biggest lessons of the pandemic and 2020 is that we are not immune to global suffering. We are not immune to fires, floods, viruses, or even authoritarianism. You may not be from bombed Aleppo or crippled Beirut, but this year we’ve all seen terrifying glimpses of how fragile cities and lives really are. Resilience cannot only be an expectation we have for other people who are struggling. Those coveted stores of resilience, like herd immunity, are built up over time, in community. We cannot be well until we are all well. While we can never truly be all in it together, we all know what it’s like to be sleepless with worry over our children’s futures. Until then we have Abeer’s hope, “All we can do is pray for our children to have sweeter days than ours.