When it comes to education, Syria’s refugee children are now among the world’s most marginalized groups. Since war broke out in the country in 2011, 2.1 million of them have fled and an equivalent number remain out of school. Enrollment rates for Syrian children are well below those in sub-Saharan Africa.
One Canadian startup is trying to help. A little over a year ago, the Toronto-based Rumie Initiative launched LearnSyria, which partners with schools in Turkey to provide Syrian students with “Rumie Tablets.” The devices come preloaded with everything from math lessons in Arabic to apps and videos for learning English.
“Education is what will help these young Syrians rebuild their country,” says Rumie Initiative operations chief Allison Kavanagh. “With these tablets, we’re providing a library for the cost of a book.”
Funded primarily by individual donations, Learn Syria uses open-source resources available online, uploading them onto the tablets and sending the devices to Turkey, where local schools distribute them to students. The Android tablets can also record data, allowing Rumie and local teachers to track students’ progress and determine which resources are most useful. Perhaps most important, the tablets also work offline.
“Circumstances on the ground are so unpredictable,” Kavanagh says. “Sometimes students need to work instead of going to school. Sometimes teachers can’t make it to class. The tablets are designed in an ordered list of exercises, so students can follow the lesson pattern, even without a teacher.”
The program also has a volunteer component: People can donate their time to finding, evaluating, and organizing the right digital learning tools through Rumie LearnCloud, a digital platform that stores and shares educational resources.
The project is “a way to pull the refugee crisis out of the news in a way that students had never been able to do,” says Matthew Donovan, a senior at George Washington University who volunteers as an evaluator. Donovan has organized “hackathons” on the GW campus, where students can come and help find material. They’ve had up to 60 attendees.
For students like Donovan, Learn Syria is a way to have an impact without having to fork over hard-won savings. “College students aren’t exactly known for their large charitable donations,” he says. “Most of us don’t have a lot of money to spare.”
To date, more than 1,000 Rumie Tablets have been sent to Turkey. Kavanagh says the program will soon expand into Lebanon, home to more than 1 million Syrian refugees.
“Refugees are keen to fulfill their dreams,” she says. “Tapping into that energy and that hope is essential to help rebuild peace in the region.”