Refugee children determined to keep learning, as Syrian conflict reaches three-year mark
On the heels of his visit with children and families in Homs, Syrian Arab Republic, UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake travelled to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley to meet Syrian refugee children and their families. Mr. Lake was accompanied by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, Save the Children’s Chief Executive Justin Forsyth, World Vision International’s regional leader for the Middle East and Eastern Europe Conny Lenneberg and Mercy Corps’ Vice President of Global Engagement and Policy Andrea Koppel.
BEIRUT, Lebanon, 14 March 2014 – Shaiima* sits on a thin mattress perched on the straw mat of her family’s makeshift tent in eastern Lebanon. The 9-year-old girl leans towards her mother, Salha, who wraps her arm tenderly around Shaiima’s waist. Eyes wide, Shaiima is listening to her father, Awad, talk about their life back in the Syrian Arab Republic.
In Homs, he says, they lived in a three-storey house with a garden, in a middle-class, urban neighbourhood, surrounded by friends and family. They had a car. Awad, who has a university degree, had a job as an entrepreneur. Then, their whole life was turned upside down.
“It broke my heart to see the destruction around the edge of the Old City of Homs while I was there,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake tells the family, on his visit to their tent. “I can only imagine how it must have felt for you.”
A united call
The heads of UNICEF and UNHCR and senior representatives of Save the Children, World Vision International and Mercy Corps have travelled to Bekaa, in eastern Lebanon, to visit Syrian children and families in an informal tented settlement.
On the eve of the third anniversary of the beginning of the Syrian crisis, the five organizations are united in calling for an immediate end to the fighting, unrestricted humanitarian access inside the Syrian Arab Republic, increased support to heal children physically and emotionally, provision of learning and skills development opportunities, and efforts to decrease the economic impact on neighbouring countries.
Education amid the tents
Three years ago, after they had first fled to Damascus, Shaiima and her family then fled again, crossing the border into Lebanon after a harrowing journey. They set up what was supposed to be a short-term, alternative shelter amid some 15 tents. Today, they are among 1,000 refugees living on this strip of muddy lowland next to a polluted stream, and the makeshift tent has become their home for an indeterminate future.
Today, Awad tells Mr. Lake and his companions that he has seen some improvements in the situation at the tented settlement.
Children are now able to attend non-formal educational classes organized by local NGO Beyond Association, supported by UNICEF, right on the settlement. The child-friendly spaces provide basic literacy and numeracy classes, an accelerated learning programme, English lessons, psychosocial support and structured recreational activities for the refugee children. Some 400 children between the ages of 6 and 14 participate in either the morning or afternoon shifts.
Father and teacher, daughter and student
Awad has also undergone training and has started teaching the children.
“Education is very important, because we have a whole generation of illiterate children arriving from Syria,” he says. “We’re talking about millions of children affected here and in neighbouring countries.” The one lamp in the tent goes out; Awad ignores the sudden darkness. “I am very happy to be teaching. Children are asking for classes, and even adults want to learn!”
Shaiima, like some of the other children, had been able to attend a nearby school, for a time, and she got good grades. However, the family could not afford to pay tuition, so she had to drop out. Since the summer of 2013, she has been able to attend the non-formal classes. For hers and the other families here, it is a welcome intervention, although the worry is that children will not receive certifications for their education.
During his visit, Mr. Lake joins one of the classes. In talking to the pupils, he discovers that many of them work in agriculture, starting as early as 6 a.m. But, these children are adamant about attending the afternoon classes in the settlement. They tell Mr. Lake it is their right, and that they want to learn and have a better future, despite being tired.
Hopes and dreams
Back in the tent, under the dim light, Shaiima’s brother, 7-year-old Mohammad, starts drawing. He sketches clouds, mountains, a river – and a house.
“The most common thing that children draw is a house,” says Salha. “That’s the first thing they draw.”
Mr. Lake asks Shaiima what she wants most – if she can have anything.
“I want to go to Syria,” she says, quickly.
Before leaving the tented settlement, the heads of agencies are serenaded with a warm goodbye song about returning to the Syrian Arab Republic, one day. As the refugees sing, their enthusiasm grows.
By the end of his stay, Mr. Lake has become known as Baba UNICEF (Papa UNICEF).
*Names have been changed.