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Syrian refugee youths’ aspirations and policy alignments in Lebanon

Tue, March 7, 8:00 to 9:30am, Sheraton Atlanta, 1, Georgia 10 (South Tower)


The right to higher education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948) and lifelong learning is a key tenet of the Sustainable Development Goals (United Nations, 2016). However, currently less than 1% of refugees in the university age cohort are enrolled in form of tertiary education (UNHCR, 2016). Higher education in conflict-affected settings holds great potential to serve as a catalyst for recovery and yet remains underfunded and under prioritized (Crea, 2016; Milton & Barakat, 2016). These findings point to a fundamental mismatch between the rights of refugee learners and the opportunities currently available to them to pursue lifelong learning.

At the same time, conflicts are increasingly protracted. The average conflict lasts for 12 years in low-income countries and the average length of displacement is 17 years (UNHCR, 2006). Conflict-affected youth have traditionally remained overlooked and rarely consulted by policymakers that design programs targeting these youth (Dryden-Peterson, Bellino, & Chopra, 2015; Sommers, 2015; Women's Refugee Commission & UNHCR, 2016). In the face of protracted conflict, displacement and uncertainty how should education policy makers design higher educational programs? How do these programs account for youths’ shifting ambitions, if at all? Similarly, how do refugee youth and young adults manage their own ambitions and aspirations for learning when the opportunities to continue their educational trajectories remain severely limited and constrained? What tensions and misalignments emerge between policymakers’ imaginings of the future vis-à-vis young adults’ current lived experiences and their forecasted aspirations for the future in settings of conflict? Through a vertical case study (Bartlett & Vavrus, 2014) of higher education program delivery for displaced Syrian youth in Lebanon, this presentation will deepen investigation into these questions.

Data for this study were collected over 6 months during the spring and summer of 2016 in Lebanon. The study sample includes 41 semi-structured interviews with 15 displaced Syrian young adults (18-30 years) in Lebanon and 10 actors including UN representatives, INGO representatives and bilateral organizations designing and implementing higher education programs for Syrian young adults in Lebanon. Data from this study will be coded using etic and emic codes. Etic codes are drawn from the field of education policy alignment (See, for example: Kingdon, 2003; Mintrom & Norman, 2009; Steiner‐Khamsi, 2010).

Preliminary analysis reveals that while Syrian youth imagine living in Lebanon or migrating onward, several policy makers design programs with the goal that youth will eventually return to Syria. While youth might accept offers to enroll in donor-funded programs that are not of their first choice, they simultaneously plan for alternate pathways to continue pursuing their original ambitions. Programs and donors on the other hand are left grappling with how to balance the requirements placed on them by restrictive host-country policies and the reality of youth on the move.

This study informs our understanding about the ways programs and policies targeting conflict-affected youth but misaligned with their ambitions drive inequality and stratification within countries hosting a large influx of refugees.


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