Getting Syria's most vulnerable children to school

Jordan, Syria

March 15, 2014

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  • Hayam has muscular dystrophy, which prevented her from walking the distance to the school in Zaatari refugee camp. Through our program to help Syrian children with disabilities get equal access to education, she received a wheelchair to finally return to classes, which she'd missed for nearly a year after arriving at the camp. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Each child who is unable to walk to school receives a wheelchair so they can get around more easily. We also hire people to escort each child to their classroom. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Hayam also receives one-on-one tutoring with a trained instructor, which helps ensure she stays on track with her education. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • The program focuses on integrating children with disabilities into the public school system, so Hayam also attends regular group classes at the UNICEF school in Zaatari. In this photo, she and her classmates wait for class to start. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps
  • Hayam loves reading and writing, and says she is much happier now that she is going to school. We are working to make sure every vulnerable Syrian child is given the same opportunity. Photo: Sumaya Agha/Mercy Corps

Scroll through the photos above to see Hayam's day at school.

“I have to go to school, I need to study with Miss Dalal,” Hayam insisted. It was a cold and rainy day when I visited the eight-year-old and her family in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, and Hayam’s parents were afraid to let her go to school in the bitter weather.

She and her family fled to Jordan to escape the violence in Syria nearly a year ago. For the first 10 months after arriving in Zaatari, Hayam was unable to attend school. She has muscular dystrophy and her rapidly deteriorating muscles made the quarter-mile walk to class impossible.

Watching her younger brother and sister go to school and return with homework would infuriate her. “I fought with my sister, who is in kindergarten, because she was going to school and had homework, and why didn't I? I would take her homework and do it myself,” Hayam told me.

But with her new wheelchair, Hayam was finally able to restart her own education last month — she is one of 100 students with disabilities we’ve helped integrate into UNICEF schools in Zaatari refugee camp since the end of last year.

As part of our program to help children with disabilities get equal access to school, we provide wheelchairs to every child who is physically unable to walk to school so they can make the trip.

Making sure children like Hayam can get to school is just part of the challenge. With the support of UNICEF, our goal is to fully integrate vulnerable refugee children in camps and urban areas into the public school system. We aim to ensure the most at-risk children receive the same educational benefits — and hope for their future — as their peers, so we have been working to increase resources for the disabled and provide opportunities for desegregation in schools. The program also benefits marginalized Jordanian children living in areas now struggling to support both their residents and refugees.

Through the program, adult refugees with university degrees are trained to provide personal classroom sessions to children with special needs between three and five times per week. As a “shadow teacher,” they also work with them one-on-one in the group classroom. The personal attention the shadow teacher provides helps ensure these children don’t get left behind.

We also promote extra-curricular activities like art, handicrafts, sports, knitting and puppet-theatre in schools. While the classes give all the children a chance to be creative and active — providing some normalcy in a childhood otherwise defined by war — the interaction helps decrease the stigma that often causes children with disabilities to be marginalized among their peers.

Hayam attends some of the activities but is physically unable to participate in the sports sessions. While her father admits he is sad she can’t run and play like her friends, he is simply overjoyed that she is able to attend school again.

“Her father and I are extremely happy,” Hayam’s mother told me. “She has what she was looking for, which was to go to school, read and write. Now she doesn’t fight with her brother and sister anymore. Now every day when she comes home from school she starts writing her homework in her notebook alongside her siblings. Sometimes she even sleeps with her notebook. She loves homework.”

This crisis has turned the lives of Syrian children upside down, but every child uprooted by the conflict deserves the opportunity to preserve their future. We can’t let children like Hayam fall through the cracks.

How you can help

  • Your support is critical to ensuring this generation is not forgotten. A gift to our Syria Refugee Response helps more children get the resources and protection they need to survive this crisis and have hope for the future. Donate today ▸
  • Learn more about how we're protecting Syria's children. Read their stories ▸