Distance Education in Syrian Refugee Camps

Distance Education in Syrian Refugee Camps
Al Ghad – Amman

By Ahmad Malkawi

Nearly 2000 informal students in Zaatari and Azraq camps for Syrian refugees are now
attending classes through the ‘Whatsapp’ phone application along with their teachers
who have been running an educational program initiated by ‘Relief International’ in light
of the recent school closures and the shift to distance education, due to the coronavirus

Teachers are now working on ways to create virtual classrooms on the internet, where
students can access regular class schedules, so that teachers can each run their
classes at a specific time through a Whatsapp group that contains their own students,
according to the Director of the Jordan bureau Rozan Khalifeh.

In cooperation with the Ministry of Education (MOE), the NGO provides all registered
students with monthly internet bundles for a cost of 3-5 Jordanian Dinars per student,
which are automatically added to the authorized phone line that was originally provided
to the Organization.

Ahmad Melhem, a teacher residing in Irbed and working on this educational program
designed for refugee camp students, provides the explanations of his course content
through a video that he sends out to students. He dedicates three hours daily to
communicate with students and their parents on a Whatsapp group. However, some
parents take a long time before they hand their phones over to their children to attend
the class, which makes some students miss the discussion period. In such cases, the
teacher ends up sending the explanation to the student again. Melhem indicated that
weak internet connections inside the camp hampers the communications between him
and his students.

Similarly, Syrian teacher Mohammad Addiri, who resides in Zaatari Camp, records a
video of himself explaining the course and writing all the important comments on a
board that he received from the organization; however, the educational process is often
affected by the weak network connection, which prevents the delivery of those videos,
and causes a higher reliance on written communications, according to Addiri.

In the meantime, the weak internet connection inside refugee camps is considered a
real obstacle facing formal and informal students, as it prevents them from accessing
the ‘Darsak’ (your lesson) platform initiated by MOE for students to continue their
education through distance learning, in light of school closures, which was taken as a
precautionary measure to confront the outbreak of the virus. The weak internet
connection also hinders communications between students and teachers, as students
are in constant need for clarifications and explanations of the courses that they watch
on TV through the platform, according to Addiri.

Limited Resources in Refugee Camps

Nearly 28 thousand Syrian refugee students in Zaatari and Azraq camps are facing
major difficulties with distance education, after MOE closed all camp schools, which
make up a total of 47 schools, according to UNHCR data.

Muhannad Shbat, a 40-year-old father of five, insists that his children continue their
education in spite of the difficulties they are facing due to the authorities’ negligence in
improving the network connections in the area. He expressed that education is the only
way his children can secure a better life.

In the Zaatari camp caravan, where the family lives, Shbat’s children rotate their turns in
the only corner in their caravan where they can study in peace, after watching their
classes through the Darsak platform on TV, as they cannot access the platform through
the internet due to the weak internet connection, not to mention the power outages that
take place every night, noting that one of his children is in a very critical stage, as she
is expected to complete her secondary examination this year.

Zaatari camp refugee Abu Rami assured that the families have been requesting internet
connection towers for years; most camp residents are workers and
students whose studies rely on the use of the internet, but to no avail. He added “the
internet connection is one of the major obstacles we face in the camp. It has made it
difficult for us to stay in touch with our families abroad and was also a nightmare for
students in the camp whose education relies on a strong connection; and now, the
internet connection has become an essential need for education.” He clarified that the
UNHCR is able to build coverage networks within days, in collaboration with the telecommunication companies that are located in the camp, so that students can
continue their education until they are able to go back to their schools.

Due to an extremely weak internet connection, his children’s attempts to access the
Darsak platform start at around 6:30 am, in hopes of reaching the visual content of the
course before the network gets overloaded at the start of the electronic education
process; however, their attempts of an early access fail as well.

Shbat and Abu Rami’s children represent all students residing in Zaatai and Azraq
camps, 10 of which are documented in this report. They all agree that communication
networks are very weak and that the power outages at night are impacting students who
want to finish their education.

For his part, UNHCR spokesperson Mohammad Alhuwwari considered that the internet
and telecommunication networks are not the Commission’s responsibility, and that they
depend on the will of telecommunication companies. He added that the connection is
not bad generally, but has recently been weak due to a higher pressure on the internet
during the curfew, clarifying that it is a national problem faced by everyone across the
Kingdom; and since it is populated with nearly 75 thousand refugees, the camp was one
of the most affected areas.

The Television Platform is Insufficient

Shbat’s children suffer an overlapping in the times of their classes, as the classes of his
third grade daughter, Rahaf, are broadcasted at the same time as the classes of her twin
brothers, who are in ninth grade, which makes accessing the internet platform to
rewatch the classes a necessity. However, as the weak connection prevents them from
doing that, Rahaf watches her classes along with her friends through a Whatsapp group
in order to catch up on her studies and find answers to her questions; otherwise, she
would have to wait until the end of the week to watch a repeated version of all her
classes at once.

Rahaf considers that the classes that are cast on TV are very quick and do not answer
all her questions, she says “it used to be easier in school because the teacher would
answer all of my questions; but on TV, I cannot ask any questions.” This situation made
Rahaf dream of going back to regular caravan classrooms along with her teachers and classmates, where they used to work on homework all together, because online education is full of obstacles.

The same problems face Alaa, a fifth grade student residing in Azraq camp, as she
records TV classes using her mother’s phone so that she can refer to them whenever
she needs, although the phone is not a modern device and therefore does not contain
enough space to save all classes. She came up with this idea because she knows that
she will not be able to access the platform through the internet if she needed to rewatch
an explanation of the course. Alaa says “if we had good internet connection, we
would’ve focused during TV classes and reviewed the content on the internet; but with
the current situation, we can’t focus while recording the class.”

Recording TV screens is a method used by many students in Azraq camp, according to
the father of sixth grade student Ashwaq. He highlighted that the problem with TV
education is the absence of communication between the teacher and the student, and
the speed at which things are explained; the students are forced to look for further explanations
on their own. Ashwaq, who is keen to not miss any classes, says “we can’t keep up
with the teacher and understand everything he says. He gives quick answers on TV,
then the class ends immediately.”

Similarly, sixth grader Zaher complained about the speed of the explanations, which
makes it hard to concentrate. He tries to communicate with his classmates through his
mother’s phone, but what makes things more difficult is that most teachers do not reside
in the camp, which makes it hard to communicate with them, as opposed to what
happens in Zaatari camp.

For her part, Zaher’s mother does not blame the Ministry for shifting to distance
education in light of the coronavirus outbreak, but she admits that the weak connection
between teachers and students is affecting the educational process, as her children are
missing out on the interaction part of classroom activities.

What makes things worse is that many families in the camp don’t own TVs, according to
Hashem, a physics teacher in an Azraq camp school. Hashem also follows up on his
children’s education when they reach out to him about things that they did not
understand in a class on TV, which makes them luckier than others, having the benefit
of an educated father who can help them understand difficult content.

Hashem explains that most TV devices in the camp are old and small and have usually
been used only to follow the news and know what happens beyond the camp in an
attempt to coexist with the rest of Syria, outside of the camp. He added
that those TVs have recently been better than nothing for students to watch a class or
two, but the absence of active communication between teachers and students, due to
weak internet connections, may cost them very important information and ideas; for this
reason, he seeks to compensate his students by explaining course content on his small
board and answering their questions through Whatsapp.

Educational affairs expert at UNICEF, Rana Quwar, assures that children of refugee
families in particular suffer from a shortage of smart phones and devices that are
necessary for the educational process, in addition to the weak connection and internet
bundles that are insufficient for proper communication with teachers inside and outside
the camp, including access to the Darsak platform.

Overcoming the Obstacles

Om Hussein, a Syrian refugee of the Azraq camp, has four children in school. She confirms
that they are unable to catch up on TV classes, saying “if they were lucky enough to
catch the class, they’ll study it; if they did not catch it, it means they missed that class,”
due to the speed or the overlapping in the times of elementary and secondary classes.
For her part, Najwa Qbeilat, Deputy Minister of Education for Administrative Affairs,
clarified that this is the only way students can continue their education within the current
circumstances, indicating that students inside and outside the camps can overcome the
time overlapping problem by referring to Darsak 1 and Darsak 2 TV channels, and
rewatching their classes at the end of the week, as the Ministry recasts all classes for all

The Ministry is currently working on determining the number of students in the camps to
find out which classes they missed due to these difficult conditions, so as to create an
educational pamphlet that summarizes the main subjects for all grade levels, as an easy
learning tool before the start of the next school year, so that they can review the main
content of the classes that they missed, according to Qbeilat.

In cooperation with the MOE, UNICEF is also looking for more ways to help students, such
as distributing written course content, in the form of pamphlets that summarizes the main points of each for students in refugee camps and remote areas, where there is no
internet connection or smart phones. UNICEF will also distribute internet access cards
among families in the two camps to help students communicate with their teachers and
receive the necessary explanations and clarifications, according to Quwar, who assured
that the Jordanian experience of online education has been a successful one, despite
some of the obstacles that were inevitable in light of the current situation, and which will
become easier to overcome in the future.

This article was made with the support of Journalists for Human Rights (JHR).

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