Celebrating Syrian Youth

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Article at a glace:

  • The war in Syria has been especially hard on young people. Millions of children have been denied an education, and more than half of refugee children are out of school.
  • Young Syrians require the knowledge, skills, and encouragement to contribute constructively to their communities through civic engagement, starting and growing new businesses, and social entrepreneurship.
  • CIPE and the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF) have introduced a new model of civic education that stands in stark contrast to the regime’s propaganda and the empty promises of extremist ideologies, helping a new generation of leaders acquire an understanding of democracy and economic freedom and justice, which are essential underpinnings in shaping the way that Syria is rebuilt.

Background

International Youth Day provides an opportunity to pause and celebrate the young people who represent a source of hope and a more promising future for Syria. While this article is indeed a celebratory one, it is important to first recognize the sobering context.

There are now more than 4.8 million registered Syrian refugees, around One in three Syrian children have known nothing but war in their lifetime. Inside Syria, 2.1 million children are out of school, and 500,000 are at risk of dropping out. Among the refugee population, more than 916,000—56 percent—of school-age Syrian children are out-of-school across the region.

Nearly 7 million children inside Syria live in poverty, and levels of recruitment and use of children in hostilities are increasing. As in other places, it is youth who shoulder the heaviest burden of conflicts and poverty.

As a result of these and other traumas, Syrian human development has regressed by more than four decades during the war. The country now ranks 134th in the United Nations Human Development Index, a precipitous decline of 28 spots over the past five years.

A New Model of Education and Civic Engagement

Through a partnership with the Syrian Economic Forum (SEF), the leading market oriented "think-and-do tank" of Syria, CIPE has concentrated much of its efforts over the past several years on expanding opportunity for young Syrians. It all starts with education.

Young Syrians require the knowledge, skills, and encouragement to contribute constructively to their communities through civic engagement, starting and growing new businesses, and social entrepreneurship. As a vehicle for imparting democratic values, civic education including principles of pluralism and market economics provides young Syrians with necessary tools to assume mutually reinforcing leadership roles both as entrepreneurs and civic actors. Expanding access to indigenously owned and developed civic education today is an essential investment to foster the emergence of a more democratic society in Syria from the depths of this crisis. As the Brookings Institution puts it, “[r]efugee children and youth need high quality education that will allow them to be safe and engaged in the present, and enable them to be productive and happy civically and economically in the future.”

CIPE and SEF thus developed a new paradigm for civic education in Syria. Together, CIPE and SEF crafted the curriculum that involves an immersion in entrepreneurship, leadership, and civic skills. It covers:

  • Critical thinking and decision-making – reasoning, innovation and self-invention, decision-making and problem solving models and methods;
  • Leadership soft skills – effective communications, emotional intelligence, time management, negotiation, leadership and team building, conflict resolution;
  • How to start your own business (“Yes You Can”) – basic entrepreneurship concepts, choosing the right idea for your project, strategic management, market studies, marketing plan, administration, principles of financial accounting, business ethics;
  • Economics and market principles – trade and economic systems, supply and demand, production and profit, the role of government in the economy, how to be an economically savvy citizen.

The result is a fusion of subjects and an approach grounded in basic rights that is unlike anything that existed in the Syrian educational system before. Under the Assad regime, students did not study civics. Rather, they took a course called Al-Qaumiyya (nationalism), which required memorizing quotes by the dictator Bashar Al-Assad and his late father Hafez. Meanwhile, the command economy-cum-crony capitalist system of the regime limited the opportunities available to graduates, fostered an unhealthy dependency on government employment, and constrained entrepreneurship.

The new model of civic education that CIPE and SEF have introduced stands in stark contrast to the regime’s propaganda and the empty promises of extremist ideologies. CIPE and SEF are thus helping a new generation of leaders acquire an understanding of democracy and economic freedom and justice, which are essential underpinnings in shaping the way that Syria is rebuilt.

Branded Riyadeh (“Pioneering”), another element that sets the course apart is its emphasis on critical thinking. Interactive exercises and group activities are integrated throughout the course as an essential means of learning. The course is taught exclusively by Syrian professors, themselves displaced by the conflict, whom SEF trains in this methodology. Professors encourage constructive dialogue and debate among students rather than rely on lecture and passive listening. The reaction of the students (and their professors) to this new classroom environment has been overwhelmingly positive.

CIPE and SEF focused the first phase of the course on recent Syrian high school graduates who have been displaced by the conflict in the border town of Kilis, Turkey. The course reached a total of 680 students during this first phase of the program, over 57 percent of whom were women. The students, residents of the Kilis refugee camps, originally came from cities that have been particularly affected by the conflict—47 percent from Aleppo, 32 percent from Idlib, 5 percent from Lattakia, 2 percent from Deir Az-Zour, 2 percent from Hama, and nearly 2 percent from Homs. Most students had graduated from secondary school, but few had opportunities for higher education. The course thus provided young people with a rare opportunity to continue their studies during the current crisis.

The second phase of the course was optimized based on feedback received from the students and professors who participated in Phase I and the results of assessments measuring changes in students’ knowledge and attitudes. It was expanded to 60 hours of classroom instruction. SEF presented the course inside Syria, reaching a total of 719 students – in Tel-Refat and Dar-Ezzt in the Aleppo governorate and Maree-Nassan in the Idlib governorate.

Transcending Borders

CIPE’s current work with SEF focuses on achieving a multiplier effect through training-of-teachers and online education. Instructors who presented the course in previous phases will pass the pedagogy on to other teachers inside Syria to further disseminate learning among senior high school and university students and young Syrians of equivalent age. Approximately 30 teachers from high schools and universities in the Aleppo and Idlib governorates will be presenting follow-on iterations of the course.

To maximize the course’s reach and make it universally available to Syrians, CIPE and SEF are also adapting and expanding the course for online instruction via a new e-learning platform called Ta’alum (“Learning”). In the open online version of the course, each module will be converted to video presentations, and each module will also be tied to a test or assignment that must be completed in order for the student to receive a certificate of completion for the course. Opportunities for students to connect and conduct group assignments will also be developed.

Advancing Institutional Change

From an institutional change perspective, CIPE is supporting SEF in its advocacy efforts to integrate the curriculum in reforms of the educational system in Syria moving forward. This has led moderate Syrian opposition authorities to consider the course for broader application among schools under its cognizance. SEF signed a memorandum of understanding with the Interim Government’s Ministry of Education to advance cooperation to that effect. SEF is also exploring accreditation of the course with Syrian universities, so as to enhance the value of the graduation certificate to alumni in their educational progression and further professional development.

At the local level, SEF engaged local councils both in the presentation of the course and the business plan competition. The local councils involved in the program not only demonstrated enthusiasm for the course, but facilitated its successful implementation.

As Syria eventually moves out of crisis and Syrians forge a new social contract, education that promotes democratic values and socio-economic justice will be essential to ensuring a transition that serves the interests of all Syrians.

A Community of Civic Leaders

SEF keeps the alumni of the course engaged on a daily basis, providing them with a continuous flow of additional information and resources, and fostering networking opportunities through an Alumni Network that utilizes a closed Facebook group. Participants are active and hungry to apply their knowledge to better their communities.

With CIPE’s support, SEF conducted three business plan competitions for alumni of the course inside Syria. Of 245 business plans submitted, 14 alumni were awarded seed funding. The winning competitors have gone on to launch a variety of small business ventures, including a barber shop, a tire repair shop, a dairy store, a sandwich stand, and a spare parts center for cars. Their successes not only expand economic opportunity but also breed hope and optimism within their communities and inspire a new generation of leaders.

International Thought Leadership

In November 2015, SEF became the first-ever Syrian host of Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW). At its marquee event, SEF stimulated discussions among key stakeholders regarding the future of business leadership and entrepreneurship in Syria, with a heavy emphasis on educational prerequisites. Young Syrians who graduated from the course shared their experiences with the assembled dignitaries. In recognition of its historic leadership at a moment of unprecedented crisis, SEF received an Honorable Mention for its work at the 2016 Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) held in Medellin, Colombia.

Conclusion

There are serious concerns of a “lost generation” of Syrian young people whose lives will essentially be consumed by the conflict raging in their country. Yet, it would be a grave mistake to count them out. The students who have gone through the civic education course which SEF most masterfully presents do not see themselves as victims. They have the same drive to advance themselves and improve their communities as any other young people around the world, if not more so. In the midst of conflict and displacement, interest in the course and rates of participation are exceptionally high. Students braved extremely difficult conditions to spend a week in a classroom, and a high percentage of alumni submitted entries in the business plan competitions. Nearly two-thirds of alumni indicated that because of the knowledge and tools gained through the course, they feel more equipped to contribute to reconstruction efforts in Syria. Their courage is truly inspiring.

By advancing civic education, CIPE and SEF are driving cultural and institutional changes that support democratic and enterprise-oriented solutions to the country’s most pressing challenges. The enhancement and expansion of the civic education course and the development of a new online educational platform has expanded SEF’s reach to Syrian youth regardless of geographic location. Beyond imparting economic and business skills useful in both the near and long term, the civics curriculum hones critical thinking and decision-making skills that empower participants to engage more actively in civic life and democratic activities. The curriculum provides an alternative educational model that opposition authorities can use to counter both the propaganda-filled Al-Qaumiyya course mandated by the Assad regime and the divisive propaganda of extremists. The values and skill sets imparted by this course are laying an essential foundation for Syrian youth to engage in enterprise-oriented activities and democratic processes that will be essential to the country’s rebirth.

Stephen Rosenlund is a Senior Program Officer at the Center for International Private Enterprise. He manages CIPE’s programs in the Levant.

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