Issue Briefs

For Syrian Refugees Learning English is a Key to Survival

For Syrian refugees learning English is a key to survival

Michael Binyon

November 1, 2016

Can the English language save Syrian refugees from extremism? Across Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, thousands of young men and women, driven from their homeland by violence and fighting, are learning the language they hope will open the doors to jobs, money, opportunity and peace. And with every step achieved, every hope kindled, the chances for Islamic State to lure frustrated young refugees into its extremist ranks are reduced.

Education to the rescue

Education is the key to saving a generation of young Syrians from permanent disadvantage and despair. Across the Middle East, teachers, volunteers, aid workers and international agencies are being mobilised to repair the gaps in schooling and help children get over the trauma of killings and family loss.

Lebanon and Jordan have thrown open their school gates, doubling up with second shifts to accommodate thousands of Syrian children in afternoon classes. Volunteers are running youth clubs and football groups. United Nations agencies are building community centres where refugees can forge links with their hosts.

The English language is key

And for so many, English is the key. The language is essential to higher education in both Lebanon and Turkey, but most Syrians leave school with only a smattering of English. Those speaking only Arabic are often bewildered. “I can’t even read the labels on things I buy in the shops,” one Syrian father said, explaining why he was taking his children to English language classes being run in a local Lebanese primary school. “I want them to have a chance and get ahead. That’s why they need English”.

Britain in the lead

Britain is well placed to help meet the demand. Most aid agencies and foreign non-governmental organisations work in English, the lingua franca of the United Nations. Unlike Germany and Sweden, Britain has refused to take in large numbers of Syrian refugees, arguing that they are better helped by staying near to their homeland in familiar cultural surroundings. But to justify its stance, the British government has intensified its help to Syria’s neighbours, currently hosting millions of refugees and almost overwhelmed by the strains on their infrastructure and resources. Britain is now the single largest aid provider in the region.


Training programs

The money is being spent on intensive training of local teachers and Syrian youth leaders. In Amman, a young teacher is being shown how to use a specially produced training manual to teach children traumatised by their flight from Syria the beginnings of English. “Cow”, says the teacher as she holds up a picture. Then she plays the tape of animal noises. “Moo”, she says. “Moo”, the children squeal, laughing and falling over each other on the carpet. Only two years ago many were covering in terror as the bombs rained down on their houses.

The programme has been devised by the British Council, Britain’s leading cultural organisation that is heavily engaged in promoting “English for Resilience” in the Middle East. Sir Ciaran Devan, the chief executive, has been touring the region, seeing how Britain’s large presence in the area – around 90 full-time staff in both Lebanon and Jordan – can harness the resources of other aid agencies and programmes run by the Dutch, Norwegians and other governments committed to refugee help.

English classes

In the Amman school, the six-year-olds and seven-year-olds attend classes for two hours a day, four times a week. In primary and secondary schools, English classes are full-time. And in youth clubs, many of them built by Unicef, voluntary classes are combined with attractions to draw in bored young men who are frustrated and unemployed. The lure is wrestling – hugely popular with teenage males – or football, an obsession throughout the region. Women, adults as well as teenagers, are offered classes in embroidery or skills seen in the region as appropriate.

The discipline of turning up to training session instils routine and helps to break the frustration of boredom and despair. With youth unemployment in both Lebanon and Jordan running at around 40 per cent, neither government has dared to open the jobs market to refugees who would willingly work for a pittance and undercut local wages. That would exacerbate tensions with the locals, who already feel themselves swamped by refugees. But without work, an increasing number of young Syrians feel their energies and time wasted and resent depending on money and handouts from aid agencies.

Basic skills

Education and training at least give them skills that will be needed if and when they return home – a prospect that seems ever more distant as the war drags on in Syria. It also gives them resilience – to cope in alien surroundings and to resist the calls from Islamic State or al-Qaeda to return to Syria and fight.

Around 80 per cent of the refugees in both countries live outside the camps set up to accommodate the arrivals – in garages, shacks, temporary accommodation or living with relatives. Unlike those in the camps, they are relatively free to move around, and some have managed to find jobs as labourers or in fields where there is a skills shortage. It can be demeaning – one former head of a school of 2,000 pupils who fled her home in Damascus is working as a school janitor. She remains remarkably free of bitterness. But others find their poverty and constraints hard to take.

Local initiatives

The British Council is especially keen to help Syrian voluntary groups who are committed to promoting peace and preventing the growth of extremism. “Mobaderoon” is one such group that runs a “safe house” in Brummana, a tranquil Lebanese village nestling in the mountains above Beirut.

Young volunteers, themselves all refugees, are continuing the “Active Citizens” programme, started by the British Council in Syria to support civil society but now relying on the leadership of those remaining in the country after the Council was forced to shut its doors. Mobaderoon (meaning “initiative takers”) comprises 4,000 local activists and 52 local organisations across Syria and among refugees in neighbouring countries.

At huge risk to themselves, many of the volunteers cross the border to go back into Syria and try to stop communities devastated by the war from seeking revenge or turning to violence. The organisation has delivered more than 100 social action programmes across eight Syrian provinces (most in areas controlled by the regime), including social and financial education for children, women’s economic empowerment, psycho-social support and restorative justice. Despite the ongoing violence, Mobaderoon is continuing work to bring young Syrians together across sectarian and political lines in collective action.


In Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, the aim always is to prepare for the day when the Syrians will go home, equip them with skills for the hard task of reconciliation and keep hope alive to thwart the very active efforts by Islamists to recruit embittered refugees to the jihadist cause.

A similar self-help group has opened in Jordan – Souriyat Across Borders, which is financed entirely by Syrians outside Syria who have raised enough money to hire a house in central Amman and offer – without charge – training, English classes and rehabilitation. Those attending include many university students – pharmacists, engineers and economists – whose studies were halted by the war. They are desperate to graduate, find work and move abroad – and find it hard to accept the reality of visa controls in Europe and restrictions on work in Jordan. Elsewhere in the centre are young Syrians who have lost limbs or suffered terrible war wounds who refuse to allow these disabilities to halt their education.

Looking at the future

What are their hopes and reflections as their homeland turns into a wartime wasteland. “I want to be a minister,” one woman from Aleppo said. “Kerry and Lavrov are like Tom and Jerry playing in Syria” another said. One man, appalled at the failure of peace efforts, demanded that the outside world “should not deal with Syria as you dealt with Colombia”. But most had more local and realisable concerns. “We need more programmes, more involvement of NGOs and more schools. Children not enrolled in schools are time bombs for the future.”

To stop those bombs exploding is the immediate priority for the British Council, aid workers, governments and all those trying to prevent the destruction of a whole generation of Syrian refugees. English for Resilience.


Michael Binyon is a Senior Adviser to GPI. He has been an editorial writer, columnist and foreign correspondent for The Times (of London) since 1971. For 15 years he was based overseas, reporting from Moscow, Washington, Bonn and Brussels, before returning to London to be diplomatic editor in 1991 and becoming the main foreign editorial writer in 2000. He retired from the staff in 2009 but still writes for The Times and other publications, and is a frequent broadcaster for the BBC and French, German, Canadian, Russian and Middle Eastern radio and television.

He published “Life in Russia” in 1983, has won two British journalism prizes and was awarded the OBE by the Queen in 2000.