By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Laughter from Hind El Hamar’s classroom filled the building on a spring morning. An English test was approaching and her young students had just finished the day’s lessons.They reviewed basic words like the days of the week and parts of the human body.
When a reporter from The Daily Star visited their classroom in the Burj al-Barajneh Palestinian refugee camp, they enthusiastically tried to interview him in English.
“What’s your name?” asked Safaa, 10.
“Where are you from?” asked Mohammad, 11.
Hamar’s classroom looks like any other. There’s a dry erase board up front, desks are arranged in rows and children have colorful backpacks and notebooks. But everyone in her classroom is seeking asylum from one regional conflict or another.
Safaa and Mohammad hail from the southwestern Syrian city of Deraa, where the Syrian uprising began in 2011. They fled their homes with their families and eventually settled in the camp just south of Beirut.
And as Lebanon struggles to educate nearly half a million children who fled the war in Syria, some refugees are taking matters into their own hands and setting up schools.
“The root of the idea is to serve the camp with our abilities and resources,” said Mohammad Daher, a Palestinian refugee and general coordinator for the Al-Naqab Center for Youth Activities, which is based in the Burj al-Barajneh camp.
Daher and his fellow volunteers launched the initiative in 2013 to work with refugee children who were moving into the camp. Their center, which houses Hamar’s classroom, is located in an alley near the entrance of the camp.
“Many refugees arrived at the camp,” Daher recalled. “Prices here are low. Some have relatives here. And people here are welcoming.”
The Burj al-Barajneh camp was built in 1948 for Palestinians who fled the Galilee in northern Palestine. At the time its cramped 1-square-kilometer area was intended for just 10,000 residents.
But with ensuing crises and the passage of time, the camp’s population is approaching 40,000. The place nowadays is a labyrinth of narrow alleyways and ramshackle housing. Water and power are in short supply, and dangerous power lines crisscross mere centimeters overhead.
With the camp’s population exploding, Daher and his friends launched their project.
A fundraiser at the American University of Beirut in the spring of 2013 netted $12,000.
They used that cash to fund sports and arts activities that summer. Over 100 kids signed up. It was tough, Daher said, but it helped them to refine their focus.
“After we finished the summer program we realized we needed to continue working with kids,” he said.
“But we could not work with all children, especially in education. So we decided to focus on one group only, namely children who are not in school.”
Lebanon hosts the highest number of refugees in the world, per capita. Some 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon are registered with U.N. agencies, but government estimates put that number at 1.5 million.
Most Syrian refugees live in informal settlements in the central Bekaa Valley, across Mount Lebanon as well as the north and south.
The situation for children is especially dire. Many live or work on Lebanon’s streets. They can be seen begging for money on street corners and roundabouts.
Lebanon’s education minister has said the government will educate every Syrian child in Lebanon as long as funding from the international community is available.
It’s a massive effort. Of the 480,000 school-aged refugee children registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 210,000 are enrolled in public schools or government-subsidized semi-private schools, according to Sonia El Khoury, director of the Education Ministry’s Reaching All Children with Education program.
But few Syrian students signed up when the Lebanese government first opened its schools for refugee children. “Everyone thought the crisis would be for a short period of time and then everyone would go back,” Khoury said.
It was obvious that a better approach was needed. The ministry piloted an afternoon shift for Syrian students at one school in the 2012-2013 academic year.
It expanded that effort to 98 schools the following year and eventually to 144 schools.
“This academic year we ended up having 238 schools [running double shifts],” Khoury said. “We are willing to open more schools for the coming academic year if needed and where needed.”
But educating these students is not as simple as throwing school doors open and inviting them in. Lebanon’s curriculum is more advanced than Syria’s. Lebanese students entering Grade 1 have already had three years of pre-school, Khoury said. That’s not the case with Syrian students.
“Syrians come to Grade 1 when they are 6 years old and they know nothing, neither numbers nor letters nor skills to hold a pencil,” she said.
Making matters worse, many Syrian students have been traumatized by the war and have been out of school for a while.
“This is why they cannot enter into formal [education] directly,” Khoury continued. “They cannot cope with the material that is given to them at their age in formal education. They are behind.”
The Education Ministry is implementing a four-month program to bring these students up to speed. Coursework is based on the Lebanese curriculum. Subjects include language, math, science and life skills.
“We try to give them what is missing from their education in order to bridge them [into formal education],” Khoury said.
The UNHCR launched a campaign with Lebanon’s Education Ministry at the beginning of the 2015 school year to get Syrian students into schools, said agency spokeswoman Lisa Abu Khaled.
“Last year the target was 100,000 students,” she said. “The target for Syrian refugee students this year is 200,000 students. But it means another 200,000 are still without access to school.”
Al Naqab Center for Youth Activities is targeting a small number of those 200,000 children not in school, namely Syrian children living in the Burj al-Barajneh camp.
They offer English, Arabic and arithmetic classes five days a week for children aged 6-10. They have over 50 students, and their three classrooms are filled to capacity.
They crowdfund textbooks, school supplies and athletic equipment on Zoomaal’s website.
“Most of these students are coming to school every day. We don’t have room to accept more,” Daher said.
Instructors, like Hamar, live in the camp and hail from the same cities as their students. Though not teachers by training, they’ve developed a curriculum and lesson plans.
Like children the world over, Al Naqab’s students must pass exams before continuing.
But Al Naqab’s classes are not approved by the Education Ministry, a point Daher made early on. Its students will not receive an officially recognized certificate at the end of the year.
Regardless of the status of the curriculum in the eyes of the Education Ministry, Al Naqab’s students are benefiting. “The children now know how to count, how to read. They can do simple arithmetic. They’ve memorized the multiplication table,” said Mahmoud Moati, who coaches the center’s football team.
“A child that couldn’t read before can now read,” Daher said. “A child that didn’t speak English before now knows the basics. If a child goes back to school he can acclimate more easily. Of course not all of our students are on an equal educational level but they’ve all improved.
“We want the kids to be in an educational environment so they’re not further behind when they return to bona fide schools,” Daher continued. “At the same time we don’t want them to be idle or to be in the streets.”
This story first appeared in The Daily Star, June 6, 2016.