A view From the Bridge

Double Shift: schooling Syria’s child refugees


Jordanian and Syrian pupils in Al-Arqam school’s double-shift programme declare their ambitions, from doctor and ship’s engineer to teacher, swimmer and professor.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Imagine this. You’re 12 years old. Half your family has been killed in conflict, and you find yourself in a country where every other word is a mystery. You’re desperate for stability — not least, school enrolment.

This is reality for many of the 8 million children who make up half the world’s refugees. Education is one of the biggest hurdles they face: only half have access to primary schooling. Potentially, they are a lost generation, at risk from abuse, trafficking and criminalisation, disenfranchised in ways and magnitudes unimaginable to many. A country’s loss of intellectual capital is tragic: how much more so, losing the intellectual future its children represent.

Now, a rich multimedia web documentary is revealing how Jordan — a nation hosting 657,000 registered Syrian refugees — is lighting a candle in the murk. Called Double Shift, the video, audio and text showcase the findings of an innovative social-science research project looking at how the “double shift” educational system, in which different groups are taught morning and evening, is working in the country. Already deployed for decades in Jordan and in other nations from Uganda to the United States, the system is being rolled out anew to accommodate children fleeing the war: Lebanon has adopted it, and Jordan, as Double Shift documents, is following suit to serve 160,000 school-aged Syrian refugees.


The noon switchover from the Jordanian to the Syrian cohort allows few close encounters. A football club and Saturday centre bridge the gap.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Double Shift is a joint effort by the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Its team of social scientists and visual designers used a variety of methods to capture data from Syrian refugee children in a Jordanian school, from “cultural probe” — giving students digital cameras to document their daily lives — to participatory workshops.

The findings reflect the day-to-day complexities child refugees cope with, notes Steffen Huck, director of WZB research unit Economics of Change. “Some showed the traumatic effects of the war in Syria,” he says. A questionnaire given to 88 Jordanian and Syrian students at Al-Arqam school in Sahab, southeast of Amman, is a case in point. It suggests overwhelming positivity about the school, with 90% reporting approval and more than half finding the classroom clean and safe. A subjective assessment hints at different insights.

Each student was supplied with five colours and a pen and asked to draw their classroom. “The Jordanian children used significantly more colours than the Syrian,” Huck said. “They also painted in a larger portion of the sheet of paper.” Huck speculates that these differences could indicate relatively withdrawn psychological states among the Syrian children.


At Al-Arqam school, the differences in coverage and colour use between the Jordanian children’s drawings (left) and those of the Syrian child refugees were marked.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Jordan’s public schools are already under strain, with teachers, classrooms, water, cooling and heating all in short supply. Class sizes can number 45. The pressures on both teachers and pupils are clear, and the separate shifts (Jordanian children in the morning, Syrian in the afternoon) risk entrenching difference. Yet as Double Shift documents, Al-Arqam is building bridges through a mixed soccer club and Saturday centre for study and play.

Meanwhile, Huck and colleagues have done the maths on another gain: US$167,552,165.00. That is their figure for the total net benefit to the country’s economy of enrolling 50,000 Syrian child refugees in Jordanian schools. As it happens, a new cohort of that size is poised to enter the educational system, thanks  to international funding and support from agencies such as UNICEF.

“As the Syrian civil war drags on with no end in sight,” Huck says, “Jordan’s efforts do not only set a humanitarian example but become more and more an investment in its own future.”


A rare meeting during the midday double-shift switchover.

Paula Ellguth, Marjam Fels

Double Shift offers a balanced examination of one school and the headteachers, parents and children who make up its community. It pans out, too, to the wider picture, where other factors come into focus.

Sarah Dryden-Peterson, who researches the nexus of education and social stability, has reported on serious issues with Lebanon’s double-shift programme on the non-profit Brookings Institute website. She reveals that Syrian children may be bullied, and that teachers may be exhausted and poorly trained to cope with their pupils’ psychological trauma. But solutions to fast-moving, critical situations often are partial or quasi-experimental.

If a ‘war child’ is to become an engineer, a surgeon, a pilot — as so many of the children interviewed by Double Shift passionately wish — it’s bedrock we need, not sand. As Dryden-Peterson has noted:

The average length of exile for refugees is 17 years. That’s the equivalent of a child’s whole shot at education, from birth to high school graduation… Syrian refugees do not need temporary education programs. They need access to a complete education.

Currently, debates over STEM teaching and anxieties over science in a politically chaotic world proliferate. Yet the fate of this traumatised, uprooted generation seems an afterthought to governments, who increasingly de-prioritize education in aid portfolios. Policymakers and pundits forget, perhaps, that it was refugees in flight from another appalling war who built American science and technology.


For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.


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