RAMTHA/MAFRAQ — Despite a broad smile and a love for football, it is one indistinguishable trait that sets Samer apart from his classmates and made the nine-year-old the most popular kid in school the moment he first took his seat.
Samer is Syrian.
“All his Jordanian classmates love him; he has gotten more popular than Arab Idol,” said Um Samer, his 42-year-old mother.
Samer is one of thousands of Syrians joining their Jordanian peers in classrooms across the country, a trend experts say is a sign that the Kingdom’s latest guests are settling in for an extended stay.
Some 5,500 Syrian students have enrolled in public schools across the country since officials opened classroom doors to Syrian children in January, according to UNICEF, a number the UN agency is expecting to reach 7,000 by the end of the year.
UN officials admit that the number of registered Syrian students is unrepresentative of the number of school-aged Syrians currently residing in Jordan, which various estimates place at around 20,000.
After leaving behind everything they know, maths lessons, field trips and schoolyard football matches are a welcome distraction from the hardships of a life in exile, Syrian parents say.
“Before, they used to ask me each day ‘when can we go back home and see our friends?’” said Um Omar, a 42-year-old Daraa widow.
“Now they are asking, how long can we stay after school?”
Syrian children say a silver lining in their abrupt relocation to a country many had never even visited is new friendships with their Jordanian classmates.
“We play football, race cars and play computer games just like we did in Syria,” said Omar, an 11-year-old enrolled at a Mafraq school.
“It’s as if we were back home.”
Slow to enrol
Nearly two months after the Kingdom opened its classrooms to Syrians, many families are still reluctant to send their children to school, according to relief workers and education officials.
Many Syrians cite security concerns, fearing that agents of the regime have infiltrated the rapidly growing refugee community, while those hailing from rural areas have traditionally kept their children at home in order to work as farmhands.
“My children are expected to work and help out with chores, as we did when we were children and our parents before us,” said Mohammed Homsawi, a 50-year-old migrant worker who brought his family to Jordan due to security concerns two months ago.
“Just because we have been forced from our homes, it doesn’t mean we have to change our way of life.”
Others still hold out hope that the crisis in their homeland will be resolved before the start of the next school term later this fall.
“Why should I enrol my children if I have to pull them out a few months later when we go back?” remarked Abu Ahmed, a 45-year-old Syrian residing in Ramtha.
UNICEF is currently reaching out to Syrian families across the country, encouraging them to enrol their children in the Kingdom’s public schools.
“Whether it is due to a lack of awareness or fear, we have noticed a resistance from some families to send their children to school,” said Samir Badran, UNICEF spokesperson.
“We believe school provides a sense of therapy for children and relieves the pressures families face in their life in exile,” Badran said.
Relief agencies and education officials expect an influx of Syrian students in the next semester if the crisis in the Kingdom’s northern neighbour continues, threatening to burden an already stressed school system that resorted to a two-shift system due to the arrival of Iraqi students some five years ago.
“If the crisis continues, we expect to see more Syrians enrol their children in school and this will impact Jordanian families,” Andrew Harper, the UN Refugee Agency representative, acknowledged in a recent interview.
“It is the international community’s responsibility to meet these children’s needs and not saddle Jordan with the costs of a conflict that is not of its own making.”
As part of efforts to relieve the stress on the Kingdom’s schools, the UN has reserved a portion of an $84 million regional aid appeal to help the country’s schools welcome its newest pupils.
UNICEF is set to provide funds to the Ministry of Education for additional teachers, new facilities to relieve already crowded classrooms and the hiring of social workers to provide psychological support for the Kingdom’s newest guests.
Yet with the international community slow to meet the UN agency’s bid appeal — the agency has received less than 20 per cent of its requested funds after one month — and the country facing a growing budget deficit, education officials say Jordan will be hard pressed to maintain its open-classroom policy.
“We are simply not prepared to accept large numbers of students for an extended period of time,” said an education ministry source, who preferred anonymity.
Despite the uncertain future, all signs indicate that as the school term enters the halfway point, Jordanian students still have much to learn from their Syrian peers.
“In Syria I am an ordinary student, in Jordan I am a guest,” said Samer.
“But even if we changed our home, we haven’t changed who we are.”