By David Tereshchuk *
The brutal internal conflict in Syria continues to have spillover effects on neighboring countries. And in next-door Lebanon, the children of Palestinian refugees are among the most poignant examples of the violence’s impact.
Refugees already comprise an extraordinary one-quarter of Lebanon’s entire population. The country’s long-established Palestinian camps have to absorb many more families. Among them are large numbers of children who have fled and continue to flee from Syria’s endless bloodshed.
Through a new grant to ANERA (American Near East Relief Aid), the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) is helping to ease the plight of pre-school age children in both Burj el-Barajneh camp on the southern side of the capital, Beirut and in Ein el-Hilweh, the country’s largest camp, further south near the city of Sidon.
Jennifer Ibrahim, director of programs for ANERA, has seen how much strain is placed on the refugee community by the vast new influxes and how the pressure affects the children.
“Refugee children from Syria have acute needs,” says Ibrahim. “Nearly all have experienced severe trauma, including death in the family, violence, kidnapping and home destruction and they consequently suffer great psychosocial distress.”
The high levels of stress and anxiety among these children are highly likely to affect their growth and development.
Ibrahim and her ANERA colleagues believe that “giving these children preschools to attend affords them the chance to laugh and play, socialize with children their age, escape their dreary, overcrowded surroundings and try to regain a sense of normalcy.” Many children are living in tents or multifamily one-room apartments, sometimes with 20 or more people.
In the three years since the Syrian crisis began, Lebanon’s 400,000 Palestinian refugee population has increased by 15 percent. This has put enormous stress on already sparse resources, and much additional tension within the communities. But the organizers of pre-school facilities at both Burj el-Barajneh and Ein el-Hilweh made a special point of welcoming the incoming children from Syria, even though their premises were already overcrowded and badly dilapidated.
To avoid jeopardizing the children’s health, hygiene and their capacity for learning, kindergarten buildings in each camp desperately need structural rehabilitation and new equipment. Among the potential dangers they face are defective sewage systems, moldy walls, crumbling staircases, hazardous playgrounds and inadequate bathroom facilities.
Secure and Fulfilled
Besides such general conditions being far from adequate, specific educational provision is lacking too. Targeted pre-school teaching-tools for these young students are in seriously short supply.
Enrollment in preschool is an important opportunity in a child’s life, even though it is not a compulsory part of education in Lebanon’s Palestinian camps. Multiple studies have shown that girls and boys whose elementary school attendance is preceded by the experience of preschool are much more prepared for a formal learning environment. They are much more likely to stay in school than young students who have not experienced such kindergarten time.
“This new grant will greatly help ANERA,” says Ibrahim, “in providing the maintenance and rehabilitation necessary to provide a place where teachers, parents and children alike will feel safer, more secure and fulfilled.”
“We are incredibly grateful to UMCOR,” she adds, “for supporting us in our efforts to rehabilitate these two preschools.”