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Lebanon: Syrian kids’ diplomas held hostage

Syrian Refugees | 2019-08-12 11:38:02
Lebanon: Syrian kids’ diplomas held hostage
Some Syrian students who took and passed the Brevet and Baccalaureate exams this year have been barred from collecting their certificates because they do not have legal residency papers. Proof of legal residency is not a requirement for refugee children to enroll in Lebanese public schools or sit for the official exams that allow them to graduate from middle school and high school.

A circular released by the government in February stated that “successful candidates in these exams will not be given certificates of proof of this success until they resolve their legal situation,” but the document did not specify whether the “legal situation” referred to their residency status.

Last month, the education minister issued a directive stating that legal residency was not required for the certificates to be distributed.

But parents and activists told The Daily Star that local education officials still refused to hand over exam certificates to those without proof of legal residency.

A Syrian mother living in the Rawda area of the Bekaa Valley who spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisals said her daughter had completed the ninth grade and sat for the Brevet exam this year. The family is not registered with the U.N. refugee agency, she said, and has had difficulty in finding a Lebanese sponsor, which is the only other route to legal residency for Syrians in the country.

When they went to a website set up by the Education Ministry to check the exam results, she said, the entry for her daughter showed that she had an overall passing score but did not give a detailed breakdown of results by subject as it normally would. Instead, the file was marked “pending.” Officials at her daughter’s school referred her to the ministry’s office in Zahle, where she was told earlier this week that her daughter’s certificate would not be released until she could provide proof of legal residency, her mother said.

“If they don’t give me the certificate, they won’t accept my daughter in secondary school” next year, she said. “It’s really a problem.”

The mother said she had worked as an Arabic teacher in Syria before the war, and that education remained a priority for her children after the family fled to Lebanon.

“I would go without food and drink for them to get an education,” she said.

“This is my concern, not just for my children but for any student.”

A Syrian civil society activist working in the camps in the Bekaa Valley who also spoke on condition of anonymity said he had heard similar stories from multiple families in various parts of the area.

Elena Cibeira, an education officer with the United Nations refugee agency, said that UNHCR field staff had also received reports about the issue. In the first week of July, they brought the reports “to the attention of the Ministry of Education, who took action to ensure that residency permits are not a barrier for refugee children to retrieve their certificates,” she said.

In the written directive sent out last month, Education Minister Akram Chehayeb noted concerns that students and their families had raised that they would not be able to complete the process of getting legal residency before the next school year started.

“We would like to inform you of our approval of the release of official exam certificates for middle- and high-school diplomas in 2019 to Syrian students and those of other nationalities who do not have legal residency in Lebanon,” he wrote.

Sonia Khoury, the ministry official overseeing enrollment programs for Syrian students, told The Daily Star that all of the ministry’s regional offices had been notified of Chehayeb’s directive.

“The minister was clear in his letter sent to all regional offices, who are responsible to follow up on the issues of official certification, [that] a residency permit is not considered a prerequisite for the delivery of official certificate of candidates who passed the official exams,” Khoury said.

However, according to at least some of the parents, the decision was still not being applied by some local offices as of this week.

A representative of the Zahle office, reached by telephone, referred questions to the ministry’s central office in Beirut. When asked about Chehayeb’s decision authorizing the release of the certificates, she said, “We have not received anything here.”

The number of Syrian students who remain in school long enough to take the official exams is already low. According to the U.N.’s 2018 Vulnerability Assessment of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon, 11 percent of middle-school-aged refugee children were attending grades seven to nine, a significant drop-off from the elementary school attendance rate of 61 percent. Historically, attendance rates among Lebanese students are considerably higher.

According to statistics released by the Education Ministry, in the 2017-18 school year, only 1,260 non-Lebanese (primarily Syrian) ninth-grade students enrolled in public schools applied to sit for the Brevet exam, of whom 735 passed.

A total of 19,357 students took the Brevet last year.

In many cases, Syrian adolescents drop out of school to work and help support their family, or - in the case of girls - to marry.

In other cases, families cited transportation costs and bureaucratic barriers to registration as the reasons for non-enrollment.

Also according to the U.N. vulnerability assessment, about three-quarters of Syrian refugees in Lebanon do not have legal residency, with most citing cost as the main barrier. Apart from the $200 annual residency renewal fee, many sponsors ask for an additional payment from the Syrians under their patronage, which can surpass $1,000.

By Abby Sewell, The Daily Star

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