Better together

Shared classrooms improve how Syrian refugees and Lebanese students view each other

New research by International Alert reveals significant differences in attitudes between Lebanese and Syrian children studying in mixed versus separate classes in Lebanon.

The findings show that Syrian and Lebanese schoolchildren in mixed classes have more positive views of each other than those studying in separate classes, with daily contact helping to combat negative stereotypes.

The research, entitled Better together, looks at the impact of the schooling of Lebanese and Syrian displaced pupils on social stability in Lebanon. It was conducted between May and July 2015 in the northern Akkar region and Bourj Hammoud in the eastern suburbs of Beirut. A total of 94 Syrian and Lebanese schoolchildren, parents and teachers took part in the 14 focus groups, with five additional interviews conducted with school principals, teachers and aid workers.

Following the crisis in neighbouring Syria and the resulting influx of refugees, the school day in Lebanon has been split into two ‘shifts’: a morning shift, attended by both Syrian and Lebanese children; and an afternoon shift, attended only by displaced Syrian students.

Syrian children attending the mixed morning shift have typically been in Lebanon longer and were therefore registered in school sooner. Some of these students also have better community or family connections in Lebanon, including Lebanese relatives or Syrian relatives who lived in Lebanon before the crisis.

The conditions in the morning shift were described as being more conducive to learning, with the afternoon shift having a more condensed programme of learning and lacking sport and leisure activities. Students in the morning shift also said they have better relationships with their classmates, playing and talking to each other. While some students complained of bullying, they feel the situation has improved over time. The Syrian students in the afternoon shift, on the other hand, described ‘the transition period’, when the morning students leave the building and afternoon students arrive, as when more bullying occurs.

Parents of the Lebanese students said they generally prefer their children to avoid Syrians. They also felt that the challenges faced by the education system were aggravated by the enrolment of Syrian children in mixed classes. While Syrian parents saw school as the only recreational activity for their children, they were also very cautious about their children’s relations with their Lebanese peers. Parents of Syrian students enrolled in the afternoon shift in particular had a less positive relationship with the school and with the Lebanese parents.

Yet even students in mixed classes reported limited relationships beyond the school. The findings therefore suggest that daily encounters and improved perceptions in the school are not enough to overcome the generally tense relationship between the Lebanese communities and Syrian refugees. While parents of Syrian students enrolled in the mixed afternoon shift felt that the school was making some efforts to build relations, no such attempts were being made outside the school.

The research was officially launched in Beirut on 2 December at an event attended by representatives from a dozen national and international organisations working on education and social cohesion in Lebanon.

The authors of the research, Muzna Al Masri and Zeina Abla, concluded their presentation of the findings with a series of recommendations. Among these are acknowledging the positive impact of morning shift schooling on both Syrian and Lebanese students, and prioritising improvements in the quality of educational standards across the board. This includes providing teachers with the necessary skills for managing conflict in the classroom in both morning and afternoon shifts, and strengthening the support to and monitoring of afternoon shift teachers. A further recommendation is supporting extracurricular activities that bring together Lebanese and Syrian students, in particular activities that target girls, who do not have the same opportunities outside school as boys.

Sharing their own experiences, participants at the launch observed that while social cohesion activities do have an immediate impact among children and parents, over time this is being lost. Some participants also noted the significant differences across regions, with one person describing how some Syrians are adopting the confessional and political stereotypes of the particular Lebanese community that hosts them.

Participants also discussed the strengths and shortcomings of existing programmes. Theatre and art workshops, English courses, and life and vocational skills trainings were all seen as successful ways of attracting mixed groups of Lebanese and Syrian students outside school and strengthening social cohesion. Unfortunately most existing programmes exclusively target Syrian children.

More work also needs to be done within schools, to address discrimination and facilitate the involvement of parents in school affairs. Addressing the psychosocial needs of Syrian children, for example, was seen as essential in helping them adjust to the school environment. Motivating and supporting teachers was also stressed by participants. One attendee proposed including a section on social stability in the teacher training curriculum for the accelerated learning programme of the Ministry of Education.

However, any activities must be done parallel to engaging parents and communities, in order to prevent reverting back to negative perceptions and strained relationships after the end of social cohesion programmes. This is especially important, one participant highlighted, given that the majority of the 400,000 school-aged Syrian children in Lebanon continue to be out of school.

You can read the findings of Better together in full here. The research was produced as part of Alert’s broader engagement on conflict-sensitive aid and social cohesion in Lebanon.

Photo: Syrian refugee students listen to their school teacher during maths class, 2014. Courtesy of Dominic Chavez/World Bank under Creative Commons