Coming of Age: Refugee Education in Lebanon and Greece

During my fieldwork, I encountered initiatives to educate child and adult refugees. In Lebanon, I learned about programs created by the Lebanese government to catch up Syrian children at school. In Athens, I had lunch with an educational consultant at The American College of Greece’s refugee scholarship program. At The American College of Greece, I then met a refugee student who invited me to photograph the graduation of another adult refugee education program at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens. My final interview in Greece occurred at the Melissa Network of Migrant Women in Greece. At the Melissa Network, I participated in workshops for refugee and migrant women and girls.

Despite the classes, scholarships, and community spaces I have seen for refugees, there remain barriers to education. The limited capacity of educational programs as well as the affordability of education in both money and time are barriers that prevent refugees from learning host languages and employable skills. If refugees do not learn to adapt to their host countries, generations of refugees may risk marginalization. Although education is a human right, accessible education can be a privilege for refugee men, women, and children.

Above: A map of pins representing the origin of students at the Foreign Language Education for Refugee Students program at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

Educating Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon

In January 2018, more than half a million Syrian refugees were under 18 in Lebanon. As the conflict in Syria approaches its seventh year, Syrian children in Lebanon below the age of seven are born stateless. On my third day in Lebanon, I visited the American Lebanese Language Center (ALLC) in Beirut to hear how Lebanon was educating Syrian children. In Lebanon, domestic and international organizations partner with UNICEF (the UN children agency) to implement the Lebanese Ministry of Education’s programs.

ALLC is a private language-training center that assists UNICEF in reshaping Lebanon’s curriculum and training schoolteachers, to the tune of 600 teachers trained every three months. Additionally, the ALLC sends 300 employees across the country on examination days to proctor standardized tests. Exam proctors help administer an average of 10,000 diagnostic and proficiency tests to grade-school students in Lebanon. According to ALLC’s Marketing Director and Project Manager of Business Development, Syrian refugee children overwhelmed Lebanese public schools as early as the first year of the Syrian civil war.

Above: Two sisters do homework using natural light during a blackout at Al Rahman Collective Complex in Mount Lebanon. 

Prior to the Syrian refugee crisis, training for Lebanese teachers in public schools was already underfunded. The addition of Syrian students placed additional pressure on the limited teaching staff. To accommodate expanding class sizes, the Lebanese Ministry of Education modified the teaching schedule in 2014. The new average school day in Lebanon has two “shifts”. The first shift teaches Lebanese students in the daytime and the second shift teaches Syrian students in the afternoon and early evening. School-age children are now accepted in Lebanese public schools regardless of their legal status. 

In addition to the “second shift”, the Ministry of Education and UNICEF created the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) in June 2016 to catch-up students who have been out of school for more than two years. In the ALP, a curriculum worth an academic year is condensed into three months of learning. While the second shift and ALP programs are now majority-funded by foreign donors, the combination of first shift, second shift, ALP, and student retention schemes (aiming to tutor students at risk of dropping out) have strained Lebanon’s teaching capacity. Mixed ages and nationalities further challenge teachers in classrooms. Furthermore, when teachers are hired in an emergency response setting, they do not expect long-term career pathways after the refugee crisis. If on one hand Syrian students have caused a shortage in teaching staff, Syrian students may have created another, positive effect on the Lebanese public school system. The innovations in education that Lebanon developed during crises may increase Lebanon’s capacity to educate its own domestic students in the long-run.

Top: Boys chase my camera after coming out of a school bus in Al Yasmine Shelter Site in the Bekaa Valley.

Bottom: In the schoolyard of Al Awdah Shelter Site in the Bekaa Valley, a toddler boy grabs unto my camera hood. A crowd of primary school children gather to watch.

Despite the government’s initiatives, four factors discourage Syrian students from enrolling in Lebanese schools. These four barriers are the temporary nature of Syrian families residing in Lebanon, the additional languages of instruction in Lebanese classrooms, the opportunity cost of time spent on education, and the competition posed by radical education initiatives. Firstly, Syrian parents are disincentivized to send their children to school in Lebanon when they believe that their families will remain in Lebanon for a limited time. Secondly, Syrian children who were accustomed to learning exclusively in Arabic in Syria must adjust to learning core subjects such as math and science in either English or French in Lebanon. Thirdly, some Syrian students stop going to school after grade six to work in agriculture, but this last barrier to education should be reduced by Lebanese labor laws that prevent child labor. 

The final barrier to refugee child education is alternative and competing education from political parties. According to the American Lebanese Language Center, education initiatives spawned by politically radical groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, lure Syrian students away from public school. Political groups promise food aid to the families of the Syrian children in exchange for sending children to their own programs. ALLC recounted that on the day of placement exams for the Accelerated Learning Program, radical groups had deterred Syrian students from taking the tests by threatening to withdraw benefits from the students and their families. Through persuasion and intimidation, radical groups try to mold Syrian students to support their line of thinking over that of the state curriculum. 

In summary, while Lebanon has created initiatives to incorporate school-age Syrian refugees in public schools, cultural, linguistic, economic, and political barriers prevent the full enrolment of Syrian refugee students. Efforts led by the Lebanese Ministry of Education with assistance by organizations such as the American Lebanese Language Center have significantly facilitated the access of Syrian children to primary and secondary education in Lebanon. It would be unimaginable to see children selling trinkets or begging in developed countries, but in Beirut, a Syrian refugee boy eagerly cracked a walnut for me to taste while a girl followed me from near the American University of Beirut asking for a banana. Syrian children need to not only be enrolled in school but to receive education that prepares them for life. Education, like other services provided to refugees with resource limitations, requires innovation.

Above: A teenage Syrian boy sells walnuts on Hamra Street in Beirut.

Educating Young Adult Refugees in Greece

Barriers to education also exist for adult refugees who wish to continue their education in Europe. During my first week in Athens, I sat down with an education consultant at the Camp to Campus Program at Deree – The American College of Greece. The US Embassy in Athens provides scholarships for refugee students to take two courses at one of three US-affiliated universities in Greece. Courses available to refugees at The American College of Greece include English classes, academic classes based on the students’ prior backgrounds, and vocational training. Fifty refugee students were accepted to study at The American College of Greece for the fall 2017 semester and an additional fifty students will have been accepted to study in spring 2018.

When it comes to the pressures faced by refugee students, the education consultant I spoke with gave an example of a student who was relocating from his camp near the port of Athens. The student had missed a week of classes and worked with his teachers to catch up. In another example, as temperatures were dropping in the fall, the consultant noticed a student who only wore light layers. The scholarship program then purchased a winter jacket for this student. The consultant describes working with refugee students as her most rewarding educational experience to date. The unique challenges that refugee students face are overshadowed by the students’ eagerness to learn.

The teachers at the college echo this positive sentiment. The respect displayed by refugee students towards teachers, receptionists, and cleaning staff has shifted perceptions surrounding refugees. The consultant also attributed improved attitudes to the students’ well-groomed appearances, which differ from media stereotypes of “desperate” refugees. Furthermore, students are cordial to each other. Afghan refugees may feel discriminated against when certain European governments consider Syrians to be legitimate refugees and Afghans to be migrants. The consultant added that if there is any antagonism between Syrian and Afghan refugees outside of the classroom, students of different backgrounds are supportive of each other inside the Camp to Campus Program. (In the next chapter, “Domestic Life”, I recount an Afghan refugee’s grievances against Arabs and Syrians as he relayed them to me.)’

The consultant concluded our conversation with an anecdote. A high-ranking official from the US government had a “powerful” encounter with a refugee student while touring the Camp to Campus Program. In a discussion during the government official’s visit, a refugee student had politely voiced that he wanted people to understand that refugees fleeing war want more than anything to return home. This student’s homesickness stands in contrast with descriptions of refugees as opportunistic, invasive, or welfare-abusing. From the American College of Greece’s interactions with refugee students, I came to understand that education is not merely a way for refugee students to gain knowledge. Education also acts as a public sphere where refugee students encounter classmates, faculty, and staff of different backgrounds. These encounters between refugee students and others on campus dismantle previous ideas about refugees and provide refugees with learning opportunities in engaging with homogeneous European societies.

Above: Two women chat to one another amongst an audience of men at a graduation ceremony of 400 adult refugee students in Athens. 

Educating Refugee Girls and Women in Greece

If refugees are vulnerable in society, refugee women are even more marginalized. I asked a co-founder of the Melissa Network for Migrant Women about the experiences of refugee women in Greece and where the Melissa Network comes in to help. The Melissa Network for Migrant Women is located conveniently near Victoria Square in central Athens. In recent years, the neighborhood surrounding Victoria Square has been transformed by the refugee crisis. Refugees of all backgrounds live in affordable apartments and hostels near the square, or in the square itself where homelessness is not uncommon. The square also acts as a public meeting space for refugees.

Overwhelmingly, I noticed that it is refugee men who hang out in Victoria Square. As well, in a photograph I took at the Foreign Language Education For Refugee Students (FLEARS) graduation ceremony at the University of Athens, my camera only captured two female students sitting amidst rows of male colleagues. I questioned the Melissa Network’s co-founder and two of my (male) refugee friends in Athens on why refugee women are underrepresented in the population and in media.

Farhan*, an Afghan refugee whose story is told in the next chapter, replied that Afghan families do not raise female children to have mindsets of self-reliance. Without ever developing autonomy from their family or male kin, Afghan refugee women are afraid of running errands alone in public even where it is safe to do so in Europe. Refugee women are likely to remain indoors and unseen. Jamil*, whose story is in the chapter following Farhan’s, added that women are unlikely to migrate to Europe on their own for fear of being harassed or assaulted on the journey or inside the camps. Jamil hinted that human smugglers can easily become human traffickers. I was previously curious as to why all the unaccompanied minors I met in Greece were boys, and now I had my answer.

Finally on the topic of underrepresented refugee women, the Melissa Network’s co-founder criticized the media for reproducing refugee gender hierarchies. I noticed this phenomenon myself when my translators, who were all males in Greece, directed my questions to the heads of refugee households I was interviewing. The heads of household would also be male. Between a man asking my questions and a man replying to me, I bypass the female refugee voice in the room. In one instance when I addressed an Afghan woman directly, she responded to me but glanced at her husband for support or approval. The European refugee discourse is thus dominated by men when a) women are less likely to travel alone to faraway countries, b) the women who do arrive spend most of their time at home, and c) the media can more easily access and report male voices in patriarchal cultures. My photo essay is devoid of a single interview with a refugee woman of my age. 

Above: Children crossing the street near the Melissa Network for Migrant Women in Greece.

To my relief, I discovered that the Melissa Network teaches refugee women strategies to advocate for themselves. In 2014, six women from Greece, Nigeria, Russia, the Philippines, Albania, and Zimbabwe co-founded the Melissa Network. The doors of the Melissa Network opened in July 2015 after the EU-Turkey Accord was passed in March of that year. Melissa offers a transitional space for women to build independent life strategies after arriving in Athens. The Melissa Network co-founder I interviewed points out the difference between survival on the migratory route and survival upon resettlement, the latter of which the Melissa Network equips refugee women to do. The Melissa Network calls survival during migration a “communal” process where the needs of one refugee are likely to be similar to that of another. However, resettlement is an “independent” process in which each refugee decides how to build their future according to their own circumstances and desires. Therefore, the Melissa Network developed a curriculum to help migrant women integrate and thrive in Greece. The curriculum is named “Alef” after the first letter in the Arabic, Farsi, and Urdu alphabets. A typical refugee woman engages with the Melissa Network’s curriculum and programs for 4 to 5 hours a week.

Alef is composed of six strands of action. These strands of action are psychosocial support, capacity-building, creativity, self- and communal-care, information, and advocacy. Under capacity-building and self-/communal-care, refugee women learn Greek and English, how to deliver first aid and psychosocial first aid, and how to identify and handle domestic abuse, as well as childcare techniques and coping strategies for stress and anxiety. Under advocacy, the Melissa Network trains refugee women to interpret and monitor the news in their home and host countries to identify false information and use social media. And under information, refugee women are introduced to methods of interfaith dialogue, peacebuilding, and conflict resolution.

On the day that I visited the Melissa Network, an information session was scheduled on the topic of early marriage. I came across child marriages in both Lebanon and Greece. In Lebanon, I heard of Lebanese Muslim men marrying Syrian teenagers as their second wives. In Greece, I met Afghan refugees who were married as early as age 13. Integration pathways such as the Melissa Network’s Alef offer accessible and culturally-relevant resources for refugee girls and women to use in daily life.

Right: Children drawing in coloring books on blankets spread atop a sewage-spilled backyard.

Left: A boy feeds bread crumbs to pigeons at an apartment reclaimed as a refugee squat near Exarcheia, Athens.


“‘Education Unites: From Camp to Campus’ – A Scholarship Program for Young Refugees in Greece.” The American College of Greece, 18 July 2017,

Roots, Fran. “A Growing Need to Educate Syrian Children in Lebanon.” Jusoor News, Jusoor, 28 Sept. 2016, 

Syria Crisis January 2018 Humanitarian Results. UNICEF, Jan. 2018,

United States, Department of Labor, Bureau Of International Labor Affairs. “Child Labor and Forced Labor Reports: Lebanon.” 2016.