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Teaching Amid Conflict

Doctoral candidate Elizabeth Adelman, Ed.M.'08, researches how teachers working in conflict-affected countries understand their responsibilities towards displaced students.

Elizabeth Adelman with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Adelman.)
When political protest that began in Syria in 2011 erupted into full-scale civil war, nearly 12 million Syrians were displaced from their homes, with over 4 million having to flee their country. Scattering across Europe and the Middle East, more than a million of those displaced relocated to Lebanon, a country now home to the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. Food, shelter, clothing, and healthcare became desperate needs for families living far from home, as did getting Syrian refugee children back in school.

The Lebanese government opened its public schools to Syrian students, but immense obstacles, including a language barrier, overcrowding, and the high cost of transportation, have made the transition a difficult one not only for students, but for teachers as well. And it was the teachers that brought doctoral student Elizabeth Adelman, Ed.M.’08, to Lebanon.

“I feel that the voice of teachers in this context has so rarely been documented,” Adelman says.

Currently living in Lebanon and observing both Lebanese and Syrian teachers, Adelman’s dissertation looks at how teachers working in conflict-affected countries understand their responsibilities towards displaced students. Despite more than 10 years of experience working in international education and development, this is the first time she is working with such a large population of refugees, and she is facing new obstacles.

“Working in Lebanon is far more challenging that any other setting I have worked,” Adelman says. “I won’t be surprised if things take longer than I planned just due to all the complexities I have had to maneuver through here.”   

Some of those hurdles made Adelman’s initial foray into the country difficult, including building trust with teachers and the significant governmental red tape that had to be cut through to gain access to the public schools. Adelman says, however, that she has been met with a lot of local support for her research, and the importance of the work she is conducting is recognized.

“There is no magic vaccine that can be handed out to heal a sick education system,” Adelman says, “but I try to remember that the changes I help push for today are necessary if we ever expect to see all children provided quality education.”

Adelman’s passion for working in international education and with displaced children began shortly after graduating college. She moved to Chile where she founded an English language-learning program, and it was there that she recognized the important role education plays for children, especially those living in some of the world’s worst conditions.

After watching a protest by middle school students demanding better education grow into a national strike that shut down the country’s education system for months, Adelman says she realized where her work would take her.

“Observing this complex situation unfold seeded my interest in the fundamental role education plays in the lives of the most marginalized populations,” Adelman says. “While this interest could easily have lead me into domestic education, I was drawn to the international setting where resources are often much more constrained and power dynamics so greatly imbalanced.”

Leaving Chile after five years, Adelman arrived at Harvard as a member of the International Education Policy Program. Following graduation, her work took her all over the world, from leading a research team in Guatemala to working with displaced students in Egypt. She credits her time at HGSE for giving her the means to conduct her research.

“The skills I learned at school translated into a profession that gave me the experience and the confidence to then head off into unknown waters,” Adelman says.   

In Lebanon, Adelman is looking at the policies the government and schools are using to support displaced Syrian students. She is interviewing both Lebanese teachers working in public schools and Syrian refugee teachers working in non-formal settings. While the two education options exist in Lebanon, the government does not recognize or support non-formal education, and in fact bans Syrian teachers from working in Lebanese public schools. Because of this, many Syrian parents have chosen to send children to schools outside the formal system.

“While this may mean their children never get a certified education,” Adelman says, “at least parents feel the school is part of their own community and they feel safe sending their children there.”

Currently, the Lebanese Ministry of Education is attempting to close down many non-formal schools and consolidate all students, Lebanese and Syrian, in public schools. This push came as Lebanon received nearly $85 million dollars this year from the international community to provide education to Syrian refugees. “The more Syrian students they can get enrolled, the more funding they are likely to receive from abroad,” Adelman says.   

Adelman plans to continue collecting data this school term in Lebanon and finish her analysis sometime next year. After that, Adelman’s next geographic leap is up in the air, but for now she knows what her focus remains.

“I think we can do a much better job of learning from what has and has not worked in other crises and simply be willing to try different models,” Adelman says. “The situation changes each year the crisis progresses, and each year we should be revisiting and revising solutions to ensure that the best interests of the refugees and the host-nationals are being considered.”

For more information on refugee education: Learning Far From Home.

Photo: Elizabeth Adelman (second from left) with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. (Courtesy of Elizabeth Adelman.)


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