ZARQA, Jordan (AP) — Intissar Ghozlan's two youngest boys haven't been in school since the family fled from Syria to Jordan two years ago. There's no space in local classrooms, and the boys, 12 and 14, can "barely write their names," having forgotten most of what they learned back home, she says.
More than 90,000 Syrian refugee children in Jordan weren't able to attend school last year, along with hundreds of thousands in neighboring refugee host countries, prompting warnings of a "lost generation" as a result of Syria's five-year-old civil war.
That's now changing, at least in Jordan.
Boosted by international funding, the kingdom has promised to make room for all refugee children in its schools, starting this week, by adding more afternoon shifts and hiring thousands of teachers.
For many children, this could be their last chance, said Robert Jenkins, the Jordan representative of UNICEF, the U.N. children's agency.
"At a certain point, it becomes next to impossible for a child to realize its potential, if they have been out of school that long," he said.
The back-to-school program "not only will have a great impact on individual children, but on the population as a whole and on Jordan as a whole and on the future potential rebuilding of Syria," he said.
On Thursday, Hassan al-Ahmed signed up his 9-year-old daughter Aisha and his 7-year-old son Mohammed for first grade in Zarqa, northeast of the capital, Amman.
The siblings, who fled Syria with their parents and two younger brothers in 2014, hadn't been able to attend school before, but were told they could register this year.
"The most important thing for me is to have my kids in school," said al-Ahmed, 30, who worked as a farm laborer in Syria and is illiterate. "If my kids don't go to school, they can't do anything in life."
The promise of education for all is part of a broader deal made earlier this year at a watershed conference on Syria aid in London.
Jordan pledged to give refugees access to legal work and education, as a way of keeping them in the region and discouraging them from migrating to Europe. In return, donor countries promised hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, concessional financing and trade benefits to pay for the refugee burden and boost Jordan's struggling economy.
Yet the aid is slow to trickle in.
Jordan's education minister, Mohammed Thnaibat, said he needs about $1 billion over three years to educate refugee children and ease current overcrowding.
The money would pay for doubling the number of schools with second shifts to 200, building 500 more classrooms, hiring 5,000 teachers and building 300 new schools.
Jordan received about $80 million so far for this year, enough to open schools to all, but not enough for keeping the program going for the entire year, he said.
"We cannot do this unless we get the grants from the donors and the international organizations who committed themselves that they will pay," the minister said in an interview.
Close to five million Syrian refugees have fled to Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt since 2011.
Jordan hosts about 660,000 registered refugees, though the total number of Syrians living there is about twice that figure, according to a census last year.
More than 80 percent of the registered refugees live in Jordanian towns and cities, while the rest settled in three camps, where schools have been established.
In the previous school year, about 145,000 refugee children were enrolled in Jordanian schools, while an estimated 91,000 did not attend, according to UNICEF.
In Jordan, lack of classroom space is a major obstacle, along with growing poverty among refugees.
More boys are put to work and more girls are married off young to ease the financial burden on their families as the war drags on and refugees' savings run out, aid officials say.
Overall, child labor in Jordan has doubled over the past decade, with refugees making up a significant contingent, according to a recent government report. More than half the Syrian children between the ages of 15 and 17 are out of school, it said.
UNICEF is trying to encourage all school-age children to return to their studies. Jenkins said the plan for this school year is to make space for an additional 50,000 children and enroll another 25,000 — those who've been out of school for at least three years — in catch-up programs.
In the event that more children show up, "we will squeeze them in and provide education to all 91,000," he said.
In one of the school districts in Zarqa, 12 out of 163 schools already run double shifts and an additional five will do so in the future, said local education official Khalil Qaisi.
"The instructions are that we have to absorb all the Syrian students in our schools," he said. "We have waiting lists."
In the northern city of Irbid, close to the Syrian border, Ghozlan, a mother of six, still hasn't heard if her three school-age children will get an education.
Her 8-year-old daughter Haneen completed first grade in Jordan. But then the family moved to a different neighborhood in Irbid where there was no room for her in the school, said Ghozlan.
The boys, 14-year-old Aghiyad and 12-year-old Mohammed, completed second and third grade respectively, before fleeing Syria in 2014, but couldn't get into schools in Jordan.
"It's a tragedy," she said. "My kids can barely write their names. They have forgotten everything."
"They see the kids go to school and they cry."
Laub reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed reporting.