SAADNAYEL, Lebanon (AP) — Syrian refugee Saddam al-Khleif hates going to school and spends most of his days either watching TV or playing outside the tent in the eastern Lebanese town of Saadnayel where he has lived with his family since fleeing civil war in his country five years ago.
Al-Khleif's two older brothers also don't go to school and instead work to support their family because their father, Hussein, has been suffering from permanent head and stomach aches that prevent him from work.
"I love to play and prefer to go to work rather than going to school," said al-Khleif, 11, who around noon on Tuesday was still wearing his pajamas as he sat on a plastic chair watching cartoons on TV inside his tent. "I went to school for six months in Lebanon then stopped," he added, without giving a reason. He said he would look for work to support his family.
Al-Khleif is among tens of thousands of school-age Syrian children registered in Lebanon who do not go to school. A report issued Tuesday by Human Rights Watch warned that more than half of the nearly 500,000 school-age Syrian children registered in Lebanon do not receive any formal education.
The findings by the New York-based group underline concerns about an entire generation of Syrian children who are growing up without education.
Like al-Khleif, 10-year-old Loay Mohammed does not attend school, saying that he went once and the students did not study but played all day. He added that it's better for him to stay in the makeshift tent settlement rather than walk to school every day and face the danger of being hit by a car.
The two children did not want to give further information to journalists.
Human Rights Watch said that although Lebanon has allowed Syrian refugee children to enroll for free in public schools, limited resources and residency issues as well as work restrictions on their parents, are keeping the kids away from education.
HRW said residency issues restrict free movement in Lebanon for refugees and exacerbate poverty, limiting parents' ability to send their children to school and contributing to child labor. Syrians moving without residency permits could face trouble from authorities, including arrest.
According to the report, there are nearly half a million Syrian children between the age of three and 18 in Lebanon. Only 158,000 non-Lebanese children, mostly Syrians, are enrolled in public schools and about 87,000 are enrolled in private or semiprivate schools, HRW said.
Since Syria's conflict began in March 2011, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled to Lebanon, which is now home to some 1.1 million registered refugees.
"Despite Lebanon's progress in enrolling Syrian children, the huge number of children still out of school is an immediate crisis, requiring bold reforms," said Bassam Khawaja, a Sandler fellow in the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch.
"Children should not have to sacrifice their education to seek safety from the horrors of war in Syria," Khawaja said.
In addition to letting Syrian refugee children enroll in public schools even if they don't have residency permits, Lebanon has also increased school capacity by opening an afternoon shift in 238 schools in the 2015-16 schoolyear.
The Education Ministry announced plans to enroll 200,000 Syrian refugees in formal public education, with international support, as part of the Reaching All Children with Education policy adopted in June 2014, HRW said.
Though during the 2011-2015 period the number of classroom spaces for Syrian children in Lebanese public schools increased every year, HRW said that in 2015-16, schools were still turning away Syrian children. This was due to the fact that the available space was not necessarily located in areas of need, or because children faced other barriers.
Of the 200,000 school spaces that donors committed to funding for Syrian children, almost 50,000 ultimately went unused, the report said.
Al-Khleif's mother said the reason her children don't go to school is because their father is sick and they need to help the family. She said her elder sons Ayad and Ayman are workers who make about $10 each a day.
She said Ayman was a very intelligent student who finished grade seven before dropping out.
"When Ayman was asked by his father to choose between work or education he chose education," said the woman. "But things changed because of the harsh life conditions."