03/21/2014 12:48 pm ET Updated May 21, 2014

Struggling to Save a Generation of Syrian School Children on the Second Shift

As I visited a "second shift" school for Syrian refugee children in a neighborhood at the edge of Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli; students would stand at attention when I entered the classroom and greet me in unison. The children I saw are just a fraction of the vast Syrian refugee population in Lebanon -- some one million -- that are straining the very fabric of Lebanese society. The war in Syria has already spilled over into Tripoli: The day my research team and I were there, militia men and the Lebanese army exchange gunfire, snipers shot at local police and bombs closed the city's ancient suq.

The Syrian opposition runs the school. It leases space in the afternoon when the Lebanese students have left for the day. The kids stay at school long into the evening and go home after dark. With the help of refugee teachers, some of whom are refugee university students, they study the Syrian curriculum.

This school and the handful of others in Lebanon like it have been established to try to sustain the education of a whole generation of refugee Syrian children who are facing increasingly insurmountable difficulties in gaining access to any kind of schooling -- among the most fundamental of human rights.

The Syrian opposition is also hoping to keep as many children in school as possible for as long as possible. Something that is difficult, as most refugee families are forced to put their young people to work in their teens or even earlier to make enough money just to eat and live. For Syrian families, this is an especially difficult choice, as education is consider a high priority and had been an engine of real social mobility before the conflict. In pre-war Syria schooling was mandatory, and 100,000 Syrians would graduate every year and go onto study in local universities and abroad.

But once these young people leave school, they won't return. For Lebanon, and the other countries that have taken in refugees, the failure to educate Syrian children will create a vast underclass of angry, uneducated and poor adults, vulnerable to exploitation and radicalization. Even if the war in Syria ends soon, the lost generation of Syrian children won't have the basic skills like literacy needed to rebuild their country.

And while UN agencies and various NGOs have been working to create the opportunity for Syrian children to go to school, those efforts have been hampered by host governments who see refugee education as just one more reason for the refugees not to go home or as an effort to take jobs and resources away from their own needy populations.

Still, these "second shift" schools are a chance to reduce some of the the harm of a war -- now entering it's fourth year -- these children didn't start.

Walking through the classrooms, I spoke briefly to some of the children, mostly asking them where they are from and their age. When some told me that they are from neighborhoods like Baba Amro in Homs or Masaken Hanano in Aleppo that have been flattened by shelling and even primitive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, I was reminded of how behind every one of those smiling faces was a story of great loss and a testament to international indifference.