Refugee Homeschool Education

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At the time of writing, in March 2017, nearly half of Syrian refugee children, ¾ million, are out of school in their three main host countries, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. While there are huge international efforts to lower this number, the process is a long one and and in the meantime, hundreds of thousands of children are losing years of learning, and small children are losing the chance – forever – to learn in those formative early years.
At the Zoe Trust, our question is: how can we support those refugee children currently out of school to commence or continue their learning? While awaiting a school place, can they nonetheless learn informally? Specifically, could a little homeschooling help? To address this question, we have been conducting small pilots in and around Izmir, Turkey experimenting with homeschooling and pop-up classrooms.
The results so far have been encouraging. Predictably, different types of support are appropriate for different situations. We have found that with support and the provision of quality educational materials, homeschooling works miracles for refugee children of educated parents, especially those with a teaching background. Gratifyingly the project also works well with less educated families; in this case we found the most effective system to be pop-up informal classrooms, where a teacher supports children communally for a couple of hours a day.
Over the next few months, we intend to conduct new pilots in a wider variety of settings and explore different types of support to help children learn who don’t have access to mainstream education.

UPDATE March 2019: We are no longer working on our homeschool project. We are now partnering with Action for Education and their work with refugee youth in Samos in particular.

Join us!
We have created the Refugee Education Fund to explore innovative ways to enable refugee children, especially those out of school, to commence or continue their education with home-based informal schooling. We are exploring ways for children to learn at home, however minimally, with parents or neighbours or in small temporary group classes. Please get in touch if you are interested in getting involved.



Three pilot projects – August 2016 to March 2017

Here follows a brief account of our work during the first months of the Refugee Education Fund.

Locations and partners

Our first two pilots were in agricultural settings, about 60 kms from Izmir. Local farmers intermittently rent land to newly arriving families who have nowhere to go and no income. This is a way for farmers to have responsive labour on tap as and when crops are maturing or need planting.

Refugee families therefore have times when work opportunities are  available, and times when they are not. When work is available, all physically-able family members work for a few euros a day. These families are from diverse backgrounds – we met teachers, a former town mayor, a journalist, electricians as well as uneducated agricultural families. When there is no work, they still have to pay rent for tent space, a basic supply of electricity, and water from a standpipe. Local authorities at times diss-assemble these unregistered camps, using force if necessary. In this context, the camps are small and hidden in less visible, remote pockets and so are difficult to find and serve.

The charity Tribe Turkey spend considerable volunteer time finding these communities and then building trust with these families, getting to know them, connecting them to resources such as our own, the Zoe Education Trust, finding doctors willing to visit, and providing food and other basic supplies.

Basmane, the setting for our third pilot, is a crowded suburb of Izmir. Refugee families living there are relatively established in that they are out of camps, resident in a town, have electricity and basic amenities. The families are equally diverse and often work in the textile industry. Many families are in weekly contact with volunteers from the association ReVi, with whom they have an ongoing friendly and trusting relationship.

Many children in both locations now have access to Turkish schools, although there remain many barriers to entry. These barriers include a lack of official documents, children being too old to start at the lower grade levels but without enough educational background or Turkish language to join higher grades, the need to work and bring in an income, and emotional trauma.

Education materials

We collected materials from the Syrian Ministry of Education syllabus, from a resource base collated by UNICEF, and from other sources for Arabic language and Maths study. The team provided each family with a whiteboard and markers, stationery, pens and pencils and an individualised folders of worksheets. When enrolling a child, the monitoring and support officer assessed  the child academically and selected an appropriate package from our materials. Weekly, the completed worksheets were checked and new ones delivered as required.

Pop-up class led by teen teachers, August to October 2016

Our first project started in August 2016 in an informal agricultural refugee settlement near Izmir. You can read more detail about how we got started here. We discovered that two teenagers, both educated to 9th grade, were teaching some of the camp’s 29 children basic Arabic letters in between their shifts in the fields.  They had no materials whatsoever. We offered to support these wonderful efforts by providing education materials (worksheets and stationary), a small stipend so that the teachers could work less in the fields, and regular guidance for the teachers. Andrew, an Izmir-based American volunteer took on project management and Syrian refugee Ali Alshaikh Ebraheem, an architecture student before fleeing Salamiyah, became our (paid) support and monitoring officer.

“I look forward to lessons with Hassan and Rayan so much. I never went to school in Syria because of the war, and I hope we can carry on learning, because I want to have an education like other children”. (Raghad, 11 years old)

The children’s eagerness was palpable and when they had access to teachers, they learned fast. In addition, volunteers such as Aysegul from Turkey and Sara from Morocco, gave lessons in Turkish and Arabic during weekly visits and provided informal teacher training, such as tips on how to make the classes more inclusive for a group of children with such a diverse range of ages and academic proficiency.

However, the children’s eagerness for education was hampered by the harsh realities of life in the camps. The teachers and older children were obliged to work, as the Turkish farmer / landlords were not willing to let these hard workers stay away from the fields, and families needed the children’s income, however paltry. So despite our wage match, teaching opportunities were limited to snatched moments  between shifts or at night.  At the end of October 2016, as the agricultural season drew to a close, the families left the region as did our project manager Andrew, so the project automatically came to an end.

 “Teaching was so much easier once we were provided with the materials and worksheets. When we started teaching, none of the younger children could read or write. Now they have basic literacy and numeracy, and some of them can multiply.” (Teacher Rayan, October 2016)

While the children learned the alphabet, we too learned fast from this pilot project. Our conclusion was that informal teaching does work to engage children in learning and to teach basic literacy and numeracy. We found that, over and beyond the provision of the education materials, a lot of external support was required. The team needed to provide teaching expertise as well as motivation to keep up momentum for families with so many other pressing priorities.

Watch Rayan in action here.

Homeschooling in the camps and in town, Dec 2016 to March 2017

For our next pilot, we decided to shift our focus to learning within the household rather than communally in the “classroom” as in the first pilot. The other difference is that the teachers, in this case the children’s parents or neighbours, would not be paid. We wanted to see if providing quality education materials to individual families, with weekly support to use them effectively, could enable families to homeschool their children in basic Arabic and Maths even without financial back-up.

Two young international volunteers took on the task of managing the project in two separate locations. Parissa, a lawyer from Australia, volunteering with Tribe Turkey ran the project in a rural farming area 60kms from Izmir, while Ben, a writer from the UK, working with ReVi, recruited some families in Basmane (a densely packed neighbourhood in the town of Izmir). Ali continued the monitoring in the camps, and Ben was joined by Nuseybe, a young Syrian herself, to monitor and support the families in Basmane.

Agricultural camps 

In mid-March 2017, we completed our 12 week project in the camps. The first 2 weeks were a huge success, and the team on the ground were euphoric at the enthusiasm of our seven pilot families. The speed with which the worksheets were completed, in one case by a group of siblings working alone without adult supervision, was astounding to us all.

“The children have taken control! They are all helping one another with completing all the worksheets.” (Ameera, mother of three)

 “We study at least one hour a day in the evenings. Sometimes I am busy and lose track of the time, then the children run up to me and remind me that it’s time for school!” (Abd AlSalam, father of two).

“Jihad and Aya could not write a single letter, now they are joining the letters and making words… they are the first people in their family to be able to read and write… and the youngest of the family!” (Battoul, a former teacher supporting her neighbours’ education)

Despite the children’s enthusiasm in this initial phase, life in the camps makes sustained progress extremely hard. This winter was the coldest on record, and families suffered from damp, wet tents, illness, uncertainty about their daily income and fear for the future. We soon lost four of our initial seven families: three moved away in search of work, and the neighbour helping the children of another family left the area to receive medical care. In one family, a mother who embraced the project with enthusiasm at the start, was not in the end able to  make time to support her children, and though the children learned alone for a few weeks, their enthusiasm eventually waned. The children in the two remaining families progressed exceptionally well in such a short period of time, despite the difficulties of their family life, successfully completing approximately half a grade worth of Arabic language in 12 weeks.

 “This was quite an emotional visit because we could not believe how well Jihad (12) had progressed. When we started the homeschooling program, Jihad was illiterate. He started with our Pre-grade 1 materials and after our first few visits, Battoul (the facilitator, his neighbour) asked for  Arabic language Grade 1 materials. When Jihad was assessed on this visit, it was evident to see that he had completed grade 1. So, within 12 weeks, Jihad has gone from knowing no written Arabic at all to completing Grade 1. But in actual fact it was less than 3 months because for a number of weeks Battoul was away from the area. Judging from the amount of progress that the children have made, it is likely that Battoul was continuously teaching them throughout the day as well as formally sitting down and doing the worksheets.” (March 7th 2017)

In summary, from 16 children at the start, 5 moved away before assessment was possible,  1 went back to work, 4 did not show significant academic progress, and 6 progressed by at least half a grade level. We can confidently say though that all 16 children remained highly enthusiastic and learned a great deal, over and above Arabic letters. They gained confidence from having outsiders take an interest in their learning, and asking them to speak and report back on their learning on a weekly basis. As we see from one of the weekly reports about 4 of the children who did not appear to progress on academic metrics, benefits are psychological as well as practical:

 “We have been working with these children for the learning project for a month now. Each week they are more comfortable with our presence. H, S, A and K especially are now able to express themselves in front of us in a way we never saw 4 weeks ago.” (January 15th, 2017)

Another child, bright and full of energy, ended up going to regular school a few weeks into the project – his love of learning somehow ignited and he overcame his fears enough to take the plunge.

A wonderful and very gratifying success was Abd Alsalam’s family. Abd Alsalam is a teacher and formerly a headteacher, and he was very enthusiastic about the materials we provided to teach his sons and a nephew who had just lost his own father. Their progress was phenomenal, despite Abd Alsalam only being able to teach after extremely long days at work. Lack of materials and a framework had inhibited him from teaching his children until he joined our project. In fact, he has enjoyed getting back to teaching so much that he started to teach children in other camps in a makeshift pop-up classroom. In April 2017, Tribe Turkey is setting up a pop-up classroom inspired by his enthusiasm and that of the children.

Basmane, Izmir

Our project manager and support officer, Ben and Nuseybe, selected six families in Basmane. One moved away shortly after the start of the programme. The children in four of the five remaining families also go to Turkish school. This is a potentially interesting use of our programme: to enable settled refugees to learn and maintain written Arabic.  Three of the four children in the fifth family don’t go to school, and while a late-comer to the project, and a complicated family, with two boys who appear to have some learning difficulties, Nuseybe and Ben are already witnessing results within weeks, and learning fast how best to support a complex family and a mother with no teaching experience.

 “This family was making very little progress as the mother said she couldn’t get her kids to concentrate. So Nuseybe sat down and did a lesson for the children, showing the mother her techniques. The kids jumped up with excitement and sat enthusiastically listening to Nuseybe. The kids began to learn the letters with ease, and began to write them themselves, starting with the first four letters of the alphabet. They were engaged and enthusiastic. We tried to pass on some of Nuseybe’s techniques to the parents so they can apply them in the week. [The following week]  Twoolyn can now write letters by herself and the second eldest boy can with a little bit of help. The very young daughter is also doing well despite only just reaching a writing age. Nuseybe was personifying the letters to help them remember them, such as giving letters “big tummies” or “umbrellas”.” (Monitoring sheet, February 2017)

All of the five participating families benefited from the Basmane project. Seven children from four families progressed academically  – in one case learning to read and write Arabic from scratch, and in the others showing improvement in their reading and writing. The four children from the fifth family, as described in the monitoring example just above, showed little academic progress, most probably because of their mother’s difficulties in teaching them. They learned when Nuseybe taught them, but with no follow through during the week, their retention was minimal. However, we are confident that all 11 Basmane children maintained, and in some cases increased, their enthusiasm for learning. Indeed, the parents of the children currently out of school asked Ben and Nuseybe about how they could enrol their children.

Our Basmane project highlighted the value of teaching parents how to teach, and Ben and Nuseybe are planning (as of March 2017) a follow-on project to address this gap.

The longer term…..

Our longer-term objective in running these pilots is to see if there is a way to introduce the concept of independent learning into emergency education debates.

While access to school is a fundamental and basic human right, how can children be supported when formal education is not a current option for them? How can children temporarily out of school re-engage with learning and thus be better prepared to start or return to full time education? We don’t have the answers yet, and we are learning fast the complexities involved. We remain convinced, however, that home-based independent learning offers a viable interim solution.