In this blog entry, Hiba Salem shares the complexities of being a Syrian researcher studying the voices of Syrian students. Hiba discusses her fieldwork, where she researched the experiences of Syrian refugee students aged 13-16 in Jordan’s schools. She provides a rare insight into the realities of being a Syrian refugee student in a segregated school, where access is highly restricted for researchers.
“What is Syria like now? Do you actually still visit it?”
“How old are you? Don’t you want to get married?”
“What is it like to be in England? Do you miss Syria?”
I departed the comfort of the flat collegiate greens of Cambridge and made my way to the arid seven hills of Amman in Jordan. Upon arriving to the airport, my temporary UK residency caused a stir—pinpoint questioning, phone calls, and, finally, after two hours, the begrudging permission to enter came. A Syrian with UK residency is often an eyebrow raiser.
For three months in 2017, I was a point of intrigue by the participants of my own study. I visited Jordan in February to research Syrian refugee students’ experiences in Jordan’s formal schools. Segregation is prevalent for the majority of Syrian refugee children in Jordan. The Ministry of Education has implemented ‘double-shift’ schools, which separate Syrians from Jordanians into allotted hours—Jordanians take the morning shift, Syrians take the afternoon. I was able to gain an insight into four of these schools, where I interviewed 80 pupils aged 13-16 about their lives as Syrian refugee students.
The Syrian conflict has entered its eighth year, having displaced more than 5 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries alone. The crisis has often been discussed in overly quantified terms, which has left us blind to individual stories and struggles. This is especially true for Syrian children, whose lives are shaped by their daily surroundings and the devastating repercussions of war and forced displacement. Yet we have done little to listen and engage with their voices.
In countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, the sheer number of collaborations, grants, and loans has been unprecedented––though still insufficient––to help countries increase access to education for refugees. Yet, the types of educational spaces for Syrian refugees, and their impact on children’s well-being and visions of the future, have been largely overlooked. Despite increased access to schooling, student drop-out rates are high. Discrimination, poverty, and insufficient resources are main causes of low educational attainment.
To understand what it means to be a Syrian refugee student in Jordan, I prepared for
classroom observations, teacher interviews, and interactive student interviews. Each student would be given a personal diary, which I designed and printed. The diaries sought to explore students’ perceptions of their schools, how they reflected on the value of their own education, and what positive or negative impact they feel it has had on their lives and futures.
Arriving at the schools, I was greeted with a sense of indifference from teachers but a deeply curious and watchful gaze from students. I introduced myself and the purpose of the research and joined them for their next classroom session. The students were keen to immerse me in their lesson by pulling over a chair for me and offering me textbooks. My initial fear of not being able to connect with the students quickly faded. They were eager to talk. And they had a lot to say.
As the weeks progressed, I found that I was no longer guiding the students to respond—the students were guiding me. They wanted me to listen as they shared their answers and opinions, as well as seeking my thoughts in return. The heart of their intrigue was threefold: my identity as a Syrian, as a researcher, and as a woman now living in England. They wanted to understand my trajectory from having lived and grown up in Syria to eventually receiving a scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge. These discussions sparked a long absent feeling of hope within the students about the prospect of continuing education.
As I came to know the children more intimately with each meeting, the rift between our realities seemed only to widen. During one activity, the students expressed their desperation to visit the national sites. As refugees, the children are banned from joining all school trips, and the money they would need to travel outside of school time is spent on surviving. When I visited Petra not long after the activity, I couldn’t help but feel the ache of guilt as I explored the majestic ancient ruins in the red sand dunes.
The findings of my study explore important issues within school spaces and around schools, which greatly impact students’ abilities to feel safe, happy, and focus on their studies. It showcases students’ wishes to meet more Jordanian students, to feel integrated, respected, and gain back a sense of belonging. More than anything else, the students wish to be heard, involved, and treated as any other free person.
“No one has asked us how we are in years. You are the first person who has treated us like we have real feelings.” – Sami, 15
“They call me ‘refugee’. Refugee, refugee, that is what the world calls us. I want to tell people in England that Syrians are like any other human beings.” – Karim, 15
“I hope they listen to what we have told you. I hope they act, not just listen. Don’t listen to our stories and forget them as soon as you stop reading.”– Jana, 16
Their voices reveal the challenges they face, which researchers, organisations, and policymakers must engage with if progress is to be made. Their resilient stories are a jolting reminder of the importance of inclusion, protection, and quality education for every vulnerable child.
I went to Jordan as a PhD student seeking data, but I left the schools with goodbye letters and diaries and the weight of their words in my arms.
Hiba Salem is third-year PhD student at the Faculty of Education and Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Her research focuses on Syrian refugees’ students experiences in Jordan. After witnessing the devastating impacts of the war on children, Hiba left Syria in 2014 to do an MPhil in Educational Research at the University of Cambridge. Hiba has published a policy paper discussing her findings and a literature review mapping the challenges adolescent girls face in conflict-affected settings.