This International Youth Day, Syrian youth face a bleak situation. During more than four years of conflict in their country, more than 12,000 children have been killed. Approximately 2 million are living as refugees, and 7.5 million are in need of humanitarian aid.
Syria now has one of the lowest education rates in the world. A 2015 Save the Children report estimates that 2.8 million Syrian children are not attending school and a quarter of school buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Many youth must forego education and work to help their families survive. Yet what often gets lost in this picture is the resilience shown by many young Syrians and their determination to play a role in building a better Syria.
In February, I wrote a blog post about how the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF) is helping Syria’s youth to play an active role in society through a CIPE-supported course for recent high school graduates that provides an immersion in entrepreneurship, leadership, and civic skills. The course offers an alternative educational model to the propaganda-filled qaumiyya (nationalism) course mandated by the Assad regime. The curriculum developed by CIPE and SEF gives students skills they can use to rebuild their country and create institutional change in the future.
Since that post was published, SEF has taught the course to approximately 600 Syrian youth living in camps for displaced persons in the Turkish border town of Killis. Some students that took the course have implemented their own small business projects, such as starting a bakery in the camp. In the next phase of the program, CIPE and SEF will move the course inside Syria, aiming to reach an additional 720 students in opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, and Lattakia.
SEF will also train high school teachers from throughout camps in Turkey to implement the curriculum in their classrooms. To maximize the course’s reach and make it universally available to Syrians, CIPE and SEF will develop an open online version of the curriculum that will be available on SEF’s website.
Opposition authorities have committed to expanding the course to an even wider audience. In May, SEF signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Ministry of Education in the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) to integrate the civic education curriculum in all schools under the cognizance of the Ministry inside and outside Syria. The SIG was formed in March 2013 and is an alternative government to the regime in Syria. The MoU between SEF and SIG strengthens cooperation between civil society and opposition authorities to improve education prospects for Syrian students.
Beyond imparting tangible skills the students can use to improve their current living situation, the civic education course empowers young Syrians to engage constructively in the country’s transformation and contribute to a more democratic future. The students that complete the course embody the civic engagement that is the theme of the 2015 International Youth Day. As one student told me when I visited a class in Killis, “It is our duty to play an effective role in society. Syria needs us.”
Peako Jenkins is a Program Assistant for the Middle East & North Africa at CIPE.