Getting Syrian Refugee Girls the Education They Deserve

More than 2.8 million children from the war-torn country are out of school—for them, gender-specific struggles to learn often are more acute.

(Photo: Karam Foundation)

Oct 1, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Tasbeeh Herwees is a journalist and writer from Los Angeles. She has written for Good Magazine, The Majalla, TruthDig, L.A. Currents, and others.

This profile is part of TakePart’s “I Am Malala” series, telling the stories of young people around the world who are following in the footsteps of Malala Yousafzai by breaking down cultural and political barriers and championing children’s and girls’ education. The series coincides with the October release of the documentary He Named Me Malala, produced by Participant Media, the parent company of TakePart.

When the Karam Foundation was first founded in Chicago in 2007 by a Syrian American named Lina Sergie, the nonprofit organization was doing the kind of work many charities do: taking up worthy causes, holding awareness events, fund-raising. It supported international efforts such as Kiva, which provides microloans to those in need, as well as local nonprofits on the South Side of Chicago.

But when the Syrian uprising in 2011 hurled that country into civil war and launched a humanitarian crisis, Sergie decided the Karam Foundation needed to refocus its mission. She began channeling all its resources into providing support for a rapidly growing refugee population, one that spanned the Middle East and North Africa and spilled into parts of Europe.

Refugee girls and teenagers often face gender-specific struggles that shut them out of educational opportunities. “I think that becomes much more acute in a refugee situation,” Sergie said. “People become much more isolated, very much protective of their girls.”

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As a result, the Karam Foundation has implemented a number of programs to address the challenges Syrian refugee girls face in exile, in terms of both their education and their health—specifically, their mental wellness.

“Psychosocial services and therapy are part of every mission we go on,” said Sergie. “We are always careful to address that and try to address it as much as possible, because this is a traumatized population.” Sergie’s team of mentors includes physicians, who supervise discussions between the girls about mental and emotional health.

More than 2.8 million Syrian children are out of school because of the war. Refugee children are faced with all kinds of obstacles in pursuit of an education: Local school resources in host countries are scarce, older children must work to help provide for their families, and some children are too traumatized by the violence they witnessed to function in a school environment.

Lina Sergie. (Photo: Karam Foundation)

“When it started becoming a refugee crisis, we started thinking about ways of supporting Syrian refugee kids through innovative education programming, which started with a program called Zeituna, geared for Syrian refugee kids,” said Sergie.

The Karam Foundation describes Zeituna as a “creative therapy and wellness program,” which is what Sergie means when she talks about “innovative education.” Its educational program isn’t just about reading books or math practice—it’s a holistic approach to learning that prioritizes practice and application.

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The foundation largely operates the Zeituna program in a Turkish town called Reyhanli, which lies three miles south of the Syrian border. Before the war, the town’s population was 60,000 people, but it’s now home to 150,000, with Syrian refugees outnumbering Turkish residents. Sergie organizes “missions” to Reyhanli twice a year, bringing teachers from all around the world to help educate and empower the Syrian refugee children and teenagers who live there.

“They’re urban refugees, so they don’t receive any assistance from international aid organizations,” said Sergie, “and their living conditions are very difficult.”

The learning process is often a two-way channel. When designing their sports schedule, for example, Sergie and her team assigned the boys to boxercise classes and the girls to basketball, operating on the assumption that girls would not enjoy the boxing-based workout like their male peers. “The girls confronted us. They were like, ‘We want to do boxercise too,’ ” Sergie said with a laugh. “The second day, we reevaluated the whole schedule and started scheduling girls in boxercise. And they loved it, and they thrived.”

One of the Karam Foundation’s newer programs, called Learn Not Earn, is meant to target those in the population who are staying away from school because they must provide for their family in some way. “If the mother is working and the father is not there, then it becomes the older girl’s responsibility to take care of the home,” said Sergie. “So we see girls being cut off from education because of their circumstance.”

The program provides families with an income so that their children can return to school and resume their education. One teenager named Rania, who was working as a grocery store clerk to help feed her siblings, was able to quit her job and go back to high school under the program, Sergie said.

There are other successes, ones that are harder to substantiate because they can’t be conveyed in numbers. Sergie shared the story of Raghad, a Syrian refugee girl who wrote three novels before arriving in Reyhanli. The novels contained political elements, and Raghad’s mother feared she would be persecuted for them. So the worried mom burned all three of her daughter’s books before they left for Turkey. Raghad was devastated. She had lost everything she’d ever written.

“It took a literary arts mentor, a woman, a writer who came to her and said, ‘Writers lose what they’ve worked on all the time and write everything again,’ ” said Sergie. “Things like this just make them understand that not everything’s lost, and that they have their whole lives in front of them.”