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By Salma Khamis

Egyptian students at a school in Giza. Courtesy of Mail & Guardian Africa.

To be completely honest, as an Egyptian, I dread the passing of every January since the now notoriously tragic uprising in 2011. I dread the publication of article upon article either commemorating or denouncing the January 25 movement, and yet am simultaneously aware of the obligation I have to read them all. Dissecting each and every headline, I struggle to locate my position within the whirlpool of misfortune that has thus far characterized Egypt’s road to democracy which, once brightly lit with the inspirational slogans of January 25 and its passionate and youthful liberal activists, now appears to have drifted off the beaten path towards a heartbreaking dead-end.

February 11, 2011 brought with it an indescribable sense of jubilant victory. As the now infamous Al-Ahram headline read, then-president Hosni Mubarak’s deposal really made it seem like “The People Overthrew the Regime.” Unbeknownst to the majority of the movement’s participants, however, they had not in fact overthrown the regime – but merely removed its figurehead. Clientelism, corruption, and insurmountably rigid sociopolitical hierarchies remain very much ingrained in the very fabric of the Egyptian system and suffice it to say that, as inspirational as the January 25 uprising was, it failed to disband these age-old structures. The story of what has unfolded since need not be retold. Sifting through any one of the myriad international news agencies’ websites on January 25 of this year yielded a plethora of articles by activists, pundits, and academics retelling the past five years’ narrative and reflecting on the lessons learned from the uprising.

January article pic 1 al ahram carnegie endowment
Front page of prominent pro-government newspaper, Al-Ahram, on February 12th, 2011. Headline reads: ‘The People Have Overthrown the Regime.’ Courtesy of The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Similarly unsurprising, however, is the marked absence of a comparable narrative in local Egyptian media outlets. To be clear, the Egyptian journalism industry is notoriously biased and rarely yields examples of journalistic integrity. That said, however, it is still worth considering the narrative circulating within Egypt’s borders about the undeniably unprecedented uprising that took place five years ago within Egypt’s borders. One could argue that it is that which is being talked about locally, and the way in which it is talked about, that matters most. As eloquent as the Huffington Post’s or the New York Times’ writers may be, they contribute little towards the mass formation, or deformation, of domestic attitudes and reactions to the presiding sociopolitical order in Egypt.

Who is saying what at home?

Having considered the language emerging from a number of Egypt’s most prominent news outlets, it appears as though there are two fundamentally orienting narratives defining that which is written with respect to the January 25th protest movement. On the one hand, we have a series of articles premised on the movement’s overwhelming success. These articles are generally geared towards highlighting how President Abd el Fattah el Sisi is leading the country towards the democratic and egalitarian dream that the January 25 movement sought to pursue. On the other hand, an equally inaccurate narrative focuses on the movement’s detrimental effect on the country, pointing to the social and economic deterioration that has since occurred as justification for why the date shouldn’t even be celebrated as the movement’s anniversary, but rather recognized for having originally been National Police Day. Although similarly bent on asserting how Sisi is leading the country out of the mess it apparently willingly put itself in, this narrative is comparatively more focused on demonizing the youth protest movement as well as Islamist factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood as the reasons behind the past five years’ unrest.

It’s safe to say that both narratives, either that of the movement’s overwhelming success or failure, do little towards inspiring any tangible, positive change in Egypt. In either case, pundits are concerned with the memory of January 25, not its undeniably ongoing reality. As much as most would hate to admit, little has changed since the movement’s first slogans were uttered five years ago this month. If anything, President Sisi’s regime has brought with it increased police brutality; heightened surveillance of opposition groups; increasingly limited avenues for public expression; ever-widening socioeconomic gaps; pitiful progress towards gender equality; and thinly-veiled prospects of increased political representation that serve only to once again concentrate political power in the hands of a very rich, albeit very incompetent, few.

However, the fact that Sisi’s regime is authoritarian, bureaucratic, and astoundingly oppressive in nature is nothing new. What has yet to be aptly considered, however; is how to bring about tangible sociopolitical change within the presiding system – short of overhauling it altogether and finding ourselves back where we started five years ago. For, somewhere in between the polarities of either calling for the third mass uprising in five years on one side, or hailing the current system’s achievements on the other, there lies today’s undeniable reality: an incoming generation of increasingly marginalized, disillusioned, and under-educated youth who face sky-high unemployment rates and a weak, if not non-existent, social safety net to shelter them from abject poverty and the myriad social ills that accompany it.

Consider the following, for example: according to figures from the United Nations’ Development Program, Egypt’s adult literacy rate remains stuck at 73.9%. Enrollment in tertiary-level education is a meager 30.1% and, at the primary school level, the ratio of pupils to teachers is a staggering 27.7:1. In contrast, consider the fact that Egypt’s neighbor, Jordan, enjoys a 97.9% adult literacy rate and a 46.6% level of enrollment in tertiary education. Moving further eastwards, 69.4% of Turkey’s population is or has been enrolled in tertiary education and each of the country’s primary school teachers bears the responsibility of 7 less pupils than had they taught in Egypt, with a Turkish pupil to teacher ratio of 20.1:1.

“The air we breathe and the water we drink”:

Egypt’s first-ever Nobel Prize laureate, celebrated author, intellectual, and former Minister of Education, Taha Hussein, referred to the importance of education as comparable to “the air we breathe and the water we drink.” As pertinent now as it was when Hussein first proclaimed it so in 1950, the only way to ensure the development of Egypt’s upcoming generation is not hindered by the shackles presented by the prevailing political environment is to guarantee their access to high-quality, affordable, education. As heartbreaking as it is for my inner revolutionary to admit, gone is the age of effective mass revolt in Egypt, at least for the time being. Neither the economy, nor the political establishment, will be able to stomach yet another tumultuous period of instability in favor of a successful democratic transition. That doesn’t mean, however, the complete impossibility of enacting tangible sociopolitical reform, the likes of which can only be feasibly sought through a complete reformation of the current educational system.

Precisely, the first point of concern should be the complete reconsideration of nationally-sanctioned curricula, particularly at the primary and secondary levels of education. Studies have long proven the inefficacy of curricula based primarily on memorization, and yet such is the content of the present-day Egyptian education system. Overly exhaustive and inefficient curricula focused on the needless regurgitation of contextually irrelevant and politically informed information should be replaced with material more attune to the demands presented by the labor market, especially as the government reportedly seeks to reorient the labor force more towards the tertiary sector in the hopes of stimulating economic development.

Furthermore, the highly centralized and bureaucratic system with which academic deans are appointed to their positions in pubic universities by the President should be disbanded so as to fully depoliticize the educational domain from its political counterpart. It is unrealistic to demand impartiality from government-appointed faculty deans, whose job security rests primarily on their ability to indulge the powers that be and their politically motivated social policies.

Important, too, is the stringent enforcement of student attendance, not just enrollment – particularly at the primary and secondary levels of education. Although, for example, official sources cite the level of primary school enrollment to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 95%, an overwhelming majority of primary schools simultaneously feature over 80% illiteracy rates due in part to the effect of meager student attendance rates. Moreover, the transition from primary to secondary education is thus made all the more difficult as a large amount of secondary school students drop out in their first year, having barely attended primary school and therefore graduated to the next level with inaccurate or falsified credentials.

The prioritization of teacher training and reimbursement need also be considered pivotal to the overall reformation of the Egyptian educational system. In a country with over one million teachers, the way in which the Ministry of Education and their own Teacher’s Union treats them is deplorable to say the least. From as early as 2005, teachers have been striking regularly to demand increased pay and fringe benefits as they face an average class size at the primary school level of 43 students. In addition, with adequate training and governmental oversight, one would hope to see an end to the almost regular flow of headlines regarding the endemic level of child abuse taking place in Egypt’s public school system.

The above is but the tip of the iceberg in terms of what Egypt’s educational system needs to undergo so as to yield a motivated and well-informed generation capable of contributing positively and productively to the country’s political, social, and economic development. Just as there have been two equally destructive narratives surrounding the January 25 movement circulating throughout domestic media outlets, there too exists two equally valid forms of revolution, both armed with the potential to succeed, depending on the presiding context within which they are pursued. The insurgent revolution is that which we have already attempted, and largely failed at, in Egypt. Grassroots public uprisings that seek to return the power thus far concentrated on the inside of the system to the hands of the people on the outside of the system. Alternatively, the more gradual process of revolutionizing the consciousness of upcoming generations can be sought through granting them the invaluable gift of knowledge and the depoliticized spaces in which to engage in its pursuit. This, I believe, is the only option left to enact any kind of tangible change in Egypt, from the inside, out.

At the risk of echoing the clichéd sentiments of many a commentator before me, I nevertheless close with the following: The January 25 uprising did indeed fail to realize its political goals. However, coming to terms with this failure and harnessing the spirit of the movement’s initial inception to pursue change from within the presiding system is the surest way to ensure that, for the thousands upon thousands of martyrs who died dreaming of a better future for themselves, we can at least seek to guarantee it for their children.

By Terrence Kim

In only a few months the Syrian conflict will mark its fourth anniversary, regrettably marking the continuing calamity that has distorted a once colorful and blossoming nation into the harrowed and war-stricken land that it is today. The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that by the end of 2014, 6.5 of 22 million Syrians will be classified as internally displaced persons, while over 2.5 million will have fled Syria as refugees. This struggle has displaced millions of people, while claiming the lives of over 190,000. While international aid organizations invariably endeavor in the minimization of casualties, their equally meaningful objective is providing educational opportunities for Syria’s youth. As war rages on, efforts to educate and nurture the generations that will rebuild Syria must endure.

The Syrian conflict was never meant to last this long. It was supposed to be a minor inconvenience of which some government, or some deity, was to resolve so that shopkeepers could continue selling their teas and coffees and so that teachers could continue shaping their tullab (students) into the country’s future doctors, teachers, lawyers, and parents. Months turned into a year and a year turned into four. Parents, backed by confidence in their imminent return to Syria, had initially scoffed at the idea of matriculating their children into their host-country’s schools. This mindset is causing students to be out of school for so long that re-admittance into public education is no longer an option for many. International aid organizations, such as the U.N., have been campaigning continuing education efforts for students into either host-country schools or specialized programs for refugee and displaced children.

The United Nations, in partnership with international aid organizations like Save the Children and Mercy Corps, launched the No Lost Generation Initiative (NLGI) about one year ago in October 2014. No Lost Generation calls for a $1 billion investment in expanding access to learning, providing a protective environment, and broadening opportunities for children and adolescents in Syria and neighboring countries. According to a UNICEF report on the war’s impact of the conflict in Syria, almost all of Syria’s children were enrolled in school and 5% of the country’s annual GDP was spent on public education before the war; with the conflict approaching four years, almost 3 million school-aged Syrian children are no longer in school.

For the children who remained in Syria, more than 18% of schools have been damaged, destroyed, or occupied by displaced people or military personnel. The lack of schools and perilous environment make getting to schools a difficult, off-putting struggle. And for the refugees who sought asylum outside of Syria, host governments are struggling to accommodate not only educational needs for children, but are also adjusting political and economic policies in dealing with rising costs of basic services, food, and rents.

So what has #NoLostGeneration accomplished a year into its inception? Note: the following reflects samples of rounded data gathered from No Lost Generation’s first year report.In Syria:

  • 440,000 more children in school over the last year than the previous year
  • 46% temporary learning spaces established inside Syria
  • 32 (of 4,200) damaged schools repaired
  • 1.5 million children in 14 governorates received school supplies
  • 350,000 students are engaged in school feeding programs
  • 550 teachers received psychosocial training
  • 70,000 children have received psychosocial support
  • 27,000 children have received life skills and vocational training, remedial secondary classes, and psychosocial support

Neighboring Countries:

–  489,000 student increase in formal and non-formal enrollment in schools
–  587,000 children have received psychosocial support
–  27,000 students are engaged in school feeding programs in Jordan and Iraq

Lebanon: ‘Reaching All Children with Education’ (RACE) committed to 413,000 Syrian students for the next three years by opening second shifts in public schools

  • Targets 630 high-risk Syrian and Lebanese children formerly associated with armed parties to the conflict
  • Psychosocial support
  • Activities on conflict resolution
  • <span “font-family:wingdings;mso-fareast-font-family:wingdings;mso-bidi-font-family:=”” wingdings”=””> Vocational training
  • Individual and group counseling
  • Access to health, legal, and protection services
  • Ministry of Social Affairs established decentralized national case management system which is the first tertiary-level child protection program in the country
  • 200,000 caregivers received psychosocial training
  • Doctors and nurses received training on clinical management of sexual violence

Jordan: public schools are operating on double shifts

  • Hygiene, recreation, psychosocial, and educational programs

Turkey: progress has been made in normalizing the status of Syrian refugee teachers

  • Strengthened capacity of local child protection actors
  • Child Protection in Emergency Training

No Lost Generation Initiative is an effort to not only rebuild childhoods, but to shape futures that will restore Syria into the bourgeoning nation it used to be. There are roughly 4.3 million children in Syria affected by the conflict and more than half of Syrian refugees are under the age of 18. The greatest victims of this conflict are indisputably the young and vulnerable who hold no say in any political agenda. These children are growing too old too soon. Innocence is lost as their lives are compelled into violence with Kalashnikovs forced into their hands to fight a war that is not their own. Political matters aside, the international community holds a fundamental responsibility to Syria’s vulnerable youth in promoting peace and providing aid through education initiatives. Education’s catalytic effect on children’s well-being and development may potentially be paving the path for peace, stability, and economic development.

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By Lidiya Chikalova

Source: PanARMENIAN Photo / Vahan Stepanyan ©

The unstable economic situation and hostilities under Assad’s regime have and continue to force Syrians of Armenian origin to abandon their country and turn to their homeland in search of better living conditions and peace around the world. Armenia has provided such home to Armenian repats. While moving to Armenia may initially seem easy, returnees experience social, cultural and language barriers. Thus, the Armenian government proposed integration programs to smooth adjustment into the new culture, as the inflow continues.

Shanto Kehyeian, 22, arrived to Yerevan alone in 2012 from Aleppo where he left both his family and his job as an archeologist behind. It took him two years to adjust to the Western dialect of the language, find leasable housing and acquire a job in the IT industry. With the help of RepatArmenia and EYP, non-government organizations locals recommended to him, he was able to make new friends and seek new opportunities.  “I learnt about NGOs through local Armenians. There are a number of charity NGOs that help repatriates overcome obstacles, but not everyone’s story is as successful as mine,” said Shanto Kehyeian.

Source: PanARMENIAN Photo / Vahan Stepanyan ©
Source: PanARMENIAN Photo / Vahan Stepanyan ©

Education programs for repatriates in Armenia

An enthusiastic community in Armenia created the RepatArmenia Foundation, and initiated numerous projects to help the repatriates to integrate. “Priorities are given to the non-formal educational programEYP Armenia and RepatArmenia, which help repatriates to acquire a well-paid job, launch a start-up, find a house and many more issues that they may encounter in the first stages of their settling in Armenia,” stated Hovsep Patvakanyan, president at European Youth Parliament in Armenia.

The Armenian government took a flexible position and now adjusts to the needs of repatriates, as returnees just like Shanto from Syria are struggling with the language barrier. Based on the Syrian refugee initiative the Armenian government developed a high-school program in 2013 for 400 students to easily integrate into Armenian educational system. “Among returnees were teachers with personal libraries, thus we had no problem finding instructors. The program lasted for a year and in 2014 academic year students can study in Armenian schools without a problem. Starting this year we asked ministry of education to integrate the Arabic language, as we want Armenians from Syria to keep their identity they grew up with,” stated Firdus Zakaryan, head of the Working Group on Syrian refugees.

Many of returned Armenians do not have outspoken language problems, however “the only difference is between Western and Eastern dialect, but once you are there you catch up with it quickly. When it comes to Russian, that is when it becomes very complicated and here is when the language barrier appears for many Syrian and Lebanese Armenians.  The programs and education remind of a Soviet Armenia,” added Shant Kerbabian, Syrian journalist of Armenian origin in Beirut. Yet, American University in Armenia is currently implementing Syrian-Armenian Assistance Program to raise funds for scholarships for returnees.

Situation in Armenia

According to the 2014 Index of Economic FreedomArmenia has advanced from economic repression 20 years ago to a ‘moderately free’ economy today. The broad advancement of economic freedom has greatly reduced poverty. Now more than ever, the country is capable of attracting returnees of Armenian origin.  According to the Armenian Ministry of Diaspora statistics, approximately 12,000-13,000 returnees obtained Armenian citizenship for the period of 2013 and 2014.

Only 1,000 people returned from Lebanon; the rest came from Syria because of the growing hostilities in the region. “There are a lot of Syrian Armenians in Armenia. A lot of them profoundly believe that Armenia is their homeland.  It is a safe refuge,” added a Syrian Armenian journalist who fled Kessab 2012.

Unlike the refugee experience in other countries, the inflow of repatriates to Armenia boosts the economy. Shanto’s story is the case in point. “IT sector has benefited greatly with plenty of IT companies being established by the refugees from Lebanon or Syria. Moreover, those Diaspora Armenians have also brought here the culture of a good service, arts, crafts and largely revived the concept of ‘family business’,” added Hovsep Patvakanyan.

Repatriates have to find their own way of settling in Armenia. The living conditions of those who have settled there depend on amount of money they have, as the Armenian government cannot provide every repatriate with housing. According to Shant Kerbabian, around 5,000 families have recently joined the Syrian-Armenian community. “Rent is very expensive. Not all refugees get accommodations and housing. They will not just give you the house. Charity, saving, there is always a relative in America who can provide with money. There is always a way of getting some money. Moreover as UNHCR registered refugees, they receive food coupons, but they are not getting accommodation.”

Financing the repatriates

Out of all Syrian repatriates only 7-8% are refugees de facto and registered in UNHCR, the rest have either established dual citizenship or received a special residence permit. As the law on repatriation is still in under consideration in the parliament, unofficial repatriates can enter the country on the basis of their ethnicity,” added representative of the Syrian repatriates group at the Ministry of Diaspora.

Not everyone stays, however. Some repatriates are return to Aleppo, Damascus and Beirut, often owing to failed integration and unsatisfactory earnings. The move to Armenia is also a costly process. Many left their kids at Armenian universities, returning to Aleppo to earn money. The Armenian government, charities and Armenian-run NGOs from around the world all focus on improving integration methods. Additional financial help to support returnees comes from Kuwait, including a donation of $100,000 to provide with food and an additional $100,000 to integrate new educational systems in schools.

“We might experience some problems upon arrival to Armenia. But one can have these problems anywhere in the world. We are supported and get help. With time and efforts, we can achieve more,” concluded Vardan.

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