Elgazette Logo newtrans  The magazine for English language teaching and English medium education

Laser – a weapon for peace

Joseph Field on an EU/British Council project to help the prospects of Syrian refugees

The European Union’s higher education project for Syrian refugees is being implemented by the British Council in Jordan, Lebanon, and – if possible – Syria. Known as Language and Academic Skills and e-Learning Resources (Laser), it provides English, French, German and academic preparation for 3,100 eighteen-to-thirty-year-old Syrian and Jordanian students in host communities affected by the Syrian crisis.

In addition, Laser will also provide access and support for accredited online higher education courses for around 350 students who have performed well or who have shown high levels of motivation in the language and academic skills courses. As some of these students will have had some prior experience of higher education, this opportunity will enable these learners to continue their education and build on what they have already achieved.

Access to Moocs (Massive Open Online Courses) in Arabic and in English will also be provided for at least 400 students who have completed the language courses. While those who have the language skills can continue their studies online in English, French and German, Arabic-language Moocs may be the preferred option for many learners who wish to develop skills and continue learning.

Courses in Jordan began in September 2015, delivered in partner premises in the capital Amman and the refugee camp at Za’atari (close to Mafraq, in the north of the country), and then Mafraq and the nearby city of Irbid. They average a hundred hours in length, usually delivered twice weekly in four-hour sessions. Classes are large, and students are keen.

‘Think of the best student in each of your classes,’ says teacher Darren Shanhan. ‘Then put them all in one room, and that’s what these classes are like.’

Commenting on the project, Joel Bubbers, British Council director Syria, says, ‘Students of this age – 18–30 – are often overlooked by the refugee response, but are still in great need of support. Through this project, the British Council is helping to address the educational needs of many young and vulnerable people by supporting their reintegration back into education. This work is of added importance as it is also supporting the Jordanian education system by meeting the requirements of those displaced by the conflict in Syria.’

It is now four years since the crisis in Syria began. The continuing and widespread violence has led to the displacement of large numbers of Syrians both inside and outside the country – threatening to destabilise the region as a whole. Out of 10.8 million Syrians inside the country needing humanitarian assistance, 6.5 million are internally displaced. More than three million more people have left Syria to live in increasingly difficult circumstances in the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Egypt.

Displaced Syrians in Jordan now represent almost 10 per cent of the population of six million. This has placed enormous strain on already scarce resources.

Around a fifth of displaced Syrians in Jordan live in refugee camps. Za’atari is the oldest and largest of these, while a second camp – Azraq – was set up in 2014. The remainder of Jordan’s Syrian population lives outside refugee camps in the urban and rural areas of northern and central Jordan.

The region’s capacity to respond to and withstand the Syrian crisis is being severely tested. Pressure on public services, including education, has increased the numbers of local people who do not have the means or the access to higher education opportunities in their own countries.

Why this solution? Although the current situation seems bleak, developing the long-term capacity of refugees living in host communities will benefit them in the present. ‘In Za’atari we need to learn English because the foreign groups come to the camp and there are a lot of opportunities,’ says Ahmad, a long-term camp resident.

In addition, providing opportunities for engaging young people in meaningful and stimulating ways will help to prevent radicalisation and the lure of participating in the ongoing regional conflict.

This project will help those students it targets to reintegrate into the education system by providing them with language training, academic readiness skills, coaching and distance education programmes. It also aims to help displaced Syrians who cannot access – or who have dropped out of – formal education because of the crisis to find new opportunities to continue their higher education in Syria or neighbouring countries. Most important for the participants, though more founded on hope than current events, is the time when they will return to Syria.

Robyn Stewart was one of the first teachers to begin working with the refugees, at a community-based organisation in Amman.

‘The first time I cried,’ she says. ‘I was reading paragraphs written by my new students. The assignment was to write about your dream job. Every single student wrote about using their education and experience to help other people.

‘Finance majors wrote about running workshops for people to learn how to save money and invest so that they would never face poverty again. Pharmacists wrote about conducting clinics in remote places so that every person had access to the medications they need. Teachers wrote about education being the most important way to open people’s minds and combat discrimination. Everyone wrote about going home and making their country stronger.’

The language programmes that the British Council is facilitating in Jordan are challenging and exciting for both students and teachers, but they’re only a first step. They are a way to build knowledge, working habits and self-esteem that will hopefully lead the participants through further study to new beginnings in a re-imagined post-conflict Syria.

Joseph Field is senior project manager at British Council Jordan