In Lebanon’s refugee camps, Syrian girls start outdoor schools
KETERMAYA, Lebanon // Baraa is nine years old, almost 10. She likes drawing pictures and dreams of one day becoming a teacher, or a doctor. But in Lebanon, where refugee access to education is severely limited, she has already taken on the role of the former.
The children in the informal refugee camp where Baraa lives — a collection of shacks in a former olive grove tucked between rocky hills in the Chouf Mountains — are among hundreds of thousands of school-age Syrians in Lebanon without access to formal education. Baraa has been out of school for more than three years now, but she attempts to pass on what little she has learned to younger children who have never set foot in a real classroom.
Every morning, she gathers about a dozen children, some as young as four or five, but most a little older, in a shady clearing between trees rigged with clothes lines. A blackboard is propped against a tree stump in front of rows of tiny chairs. Wispy white smoke from burning trash hangs in the air behind Baraa as she teaches. A few paces away, men fill small gas canisters from a larger tank, the vapours wafting across the outdoor classroom.
It’s play teaching at best. Children stand up one after another, loudly reciting the alphabet in French and Arabic. Others count. Baraa draws up homework assignments — sketching things like houses, writing corresponding words and asking the children to connect the items. It is not much, but it is the best education on offer here.
The United Nations refugee agency says 300,000 of 400,000 school-age Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with the UN do not have access to formal education. With hundreds of thousands of additional Syrian refugees believed to be uncounted by the UN, the number of Syrian children out of school is likely higher.
Lebanon has tried to create more space in its public schools, but the system has been overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
Baraa got the idea to start teaching about a year ago while watching children in the camp playing in the mud with nothing better to do.
“I tore up a [cardboard] box and gave each kid a piece of the box,” she said. “I saved my money and bought chalk. I broke each piece in two.”
Then she asked the children to write — if they could — anything. For those that did not know how, she started teaching the alphabet, having them copy down the letters on scraps of cardboard and later paper.
The classes caught the eye of 13-year-old Nejmeh and soon she began teaching as well, setting up her own outdoor classroom along the camp’s dusty main drag a short walk from the clearing Baraa uses.
While Baraa is still young and playful, Nejmeh has a more serious air. “The most important things to me in life are education and prayers,” she said.
There is a certain rivalry between the girls as they compete over students and attention. But overall they get along and cooperate, patiently waiting for classes to end and discussing what they teach the younger children with one another.
Both wish they could continue their own education.
“I was at the top of my class in Syria, but here I have no books or anything,” said Nejmeh. “What I learned in school I remembered in my head and taught the children.”
“I wish I could continue to go to school or study so I could learn to read and write properly,” said Baraa.
The number of Syrian children currently out of school in Lebanon — 300,000 — roughly matches the number of Lebanese children enrolled in government-run public schools.
Since 2013, some public schools have begun to hold afternoon classes in areas most affected by the refugee crisis as part of the government’s attempt to alleviate the problem. Currently, 62,000 Syrian children are enrolled in afternoon shifts at 150 public schools. But the efforts are still not enough.
“We’ve seen public schools where there is literally not enough space for one more seat,” said Dana Sleiman, a spokeswoman for UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Syrian children who do find a place in public schools face a host of other obstacles. The highest concentrations of refugees are most often far from town centres, where apartments and land for ramshackle homes can be rented for less. Some families are apprehensive about letting their young children make the relatively long journeys on foot, and many cannot afford to pay for transport.
Five years after the uprising in Syria began, with few jobs to go around and meagre international handouts, some families feel forced to put their children to work instead of sending them to school.
“They’re really struggling to make ends meet,” said Ms Sleiman. “We’re seeing more child labour that’s prompted by dire economic conditions.”
Like Baraa, Nejmeh hopes to become either a teacher or doctor to help Syria rebuild. “I’m sure I’ll find most of the people are sick,” she said.
But despite her commitment to learning, she sees the economic strain on her family and says she wishes she could take occasional work at a nearby chocolate factory like many of the camp’s residents.
Aid groups working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon say the need for education is critical.
“These are the same children who will one day go to rebuild Syria,” said Patricia Mouammar, a spokeswoman with World Vision International, a NGO.
“Without proper education, we are looking at a whole generation of children who will be lost, displaced and uneducated. That by itself, honestly, it’s a very scary thing.”
World Vision previously ran education programmes in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley that reached 2,000 children. The organisation would host classes in English, Arabic, maths and science as well as hold psycho-social activities for children. But as the government placed focus on getting Syrian children into afternoon sessions in public schools, private organisations have been asked to scale back their educational programs.
“There are very good intentions from the government,” said Ms Mouammar. “But it doesn’t look like a magical solution.”
Other countries that have taken in large numbers of Syrian refugees — Jordan, Turkey and Iraq — have allowed formal refugee camps to be built, providing shelter and education for the most vulnerable refugees. But Lebanon, wary after its experience with Palestinian refugees who played a major part in the country’s civil war, has rejected official camps, complicating aid delivery.
Today, many aid organisations working in Lebanon are focusing on activities for Syrian children that are not necessarily exactly education, but offer structure and an opportunity for children to get out of crowded settlements.
Firas Abi Ghanem is a field coordinator for the Italian NGO Intersos that works in Mazboud, a town near Nejmeh and Baraa’s camp. Mr Abi Ghanem’s centre hosts between 200 and 250 refugee children each week, holding activities teaching children about things like agriculture and cooking. It does not have the curriculum of a school, but Mr Abi Ghanem says the services provided remain valuable.
“It depends what you mark as education or not,” he said. “They are receiving skills they need to have, they are receiving interactions with other children they need to have, and they are receiving sometimes a medium between them and their family if trouble should arise.”
These efforts — toward providing a sense of normality or at least an escape from refugee life for a few hours a week — is seen as valuable for children who have been through a lot. Instead of pure education, these activities are focused on the mental and social well-being of children.
For children like Baraa, normality has been elusive.
Baraa is from Kafr Batna, a suburb of Damascus where the city ebbs into the countryside in a region known as Eastern Ghouta. Her family had a house and some land there, enough space for a garden and three cows that provided milk for cheese and labneh. Eventually, a rocket killed the cows and the family says their home was destroyed in fighting after they left.
Baraa was in the family car one day when a sniper shot her father through his left leg above the knee. The family was able to get him to a field hospital where he was treated.
They finally abandoned Kafr Batna for Lebanon after the Syrian government launched a chemical weapons attack on Eastern Ghouta in August 2013 that killed hundreds. Rockets bearing chemical weapons did not hit Kafr Batna itself, but did hit neighbouring suburbs close by. Her family escaped unharmed, though her parents believed their youngest boy, a newborn at the time, was struggling to breathe and improvised a face mask out of a nappy for him.
Today, Baraa knows words that she might not have picked up at her age in another life: shrapnel, shelling, snipers.
Before the war, she used to like drawing pictures of children swimming and would colour her hearts red. But after years spent in war and exile, her subject matter has changed; eyes crying tears of blood and black hearts adorn the pages of her notebook these days.
“Syria is black,” she says.
Updated: March 22, 2015 04:00 AM