Research by Selcuk Sirin Finds Syrian Refugee Children Encountering Significant Trauma and Education Disruptions

Forty percent of the more than four million Syrian refugees who have fled Syria since civil war began in 2011 are under the age of 12, with many encountering substantial disruptions to their education that will affect their learning once resettled, finds a report co-authored by Selcuk Sirin, associate professor of applied psychology, and released by the Migration Policy Institute this week.

The report, The Educational and Mental Health Needs of Syrian Refugee Children, draws from a study of Syrian children living in refugee camps in Turkey and reviews the broader literature to uncover the challenges these children face in host and resettlement countries.

Approximately half of Syrian refugee school-age children were not enrolled in school in mid-2015, with enrollment rates as low as 20 percent in Lebanon and 30 percent in Turkey. In Turkey, children cannot enroll until they can demonstrate proficiency in Turkish. In Lebanon, refugee children are taught in French or English as well as Arabic. Girls are far less likely to attend school than boys. Even when they do enroll, Syrian refugee children are more likely than their non-refugee peers to receive poor or failing grades, or to drop out.

These results hold significant implications not just for the children’s futures, but for key resettlement destinations such as the United States and countries in Europe, as well as first-asylum countries such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.

“Children may struggle to bridge gaps in their learning after substantial educational disruptions, particularly when contending with language barriers or new curricula,” wrote Sirin with coauthor Lauren Rogers-Sirin of the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

Syrian refugee children are also at risk for a range of mental health issues resulting from their traumatic experiences. Drawing on the results of fieldwork conducted in Islahiye camp in southeast Turkey to assess children’s levels of trauma and mental health distress, the researchers found Syrian refugee children had experienced very high levels of trauma. More than three-quarters had experienced a death in the family; 60 percent had seen someone get kicked, shot at, or physically hurt; and 30 percent had themselves experienced violence. Forty-five percent displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—ten times the prevalence among children around the world—and 44 percent reported symptoms of depression.

“Meeting the educational and mental health needs of Syrian refugee children will require a substantial international commitment of resources for countries of first asylum like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, as well as ongoing support for the small numbers of children who are resettled in the United States, Europe and elsewhere around the world,” said Migration Policy Institute President Michael Fix.

The report reviews intervention programs in the Middle East, Europe and the United States, finding that some community-based initiatives developed for refugee populations show promise for addressing the education and mental health needs of Syrian children. It provides recommendations for best practices to address the mental health of Syrian refugee children, including offering quality, tailored education and mental health services that are culturally appropriate and that help the children embrace their new home and learn the host-country language without losing their ties to Syrian culture.

Sirin will discuss his findings along with authors of similar reports of refugee children in a webinar on Oct. 27.