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Redefining the meaning of school for Syrian refugees

April 15, 2015
Syrian refugees from a nearby village learn how to plant basil seeds as part of Italian NGO Intersos’ psycho-social services that focus on diverse ways to educate children.

Syrian refugees from a nearby village learn how to plant basil seeds as part of Italian NGO Intersos’ psycho-social services that focus on diverse ways to educate children.

I produced this story as part of the Amplify team’s research for this challenge on IDEO.org. Education is one of the most desperate needs for Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It is such a complex issue in the country, but it is one that many are working to help. Still, a massive need remains.

Mona Kinana’s eldest children had to stop going to school two years ago. Their hometown of Aleppo had become too dangerous, she says, because of unpredictable bombings and shelling.

Alaa, 14, had been at the top of his fifth-grade class and missed school terribly.

Amal, 15, was also distressed. For her, school allowed her to concentrate on something besides her impending marriage. Early child marriage was a common fate for about 13 percent of teen and pre-teen Syrian girls before the war, and is even higher among Syrian refugees now due to financial need and safety issues.

In some ways, Kinana’s nine-year-old daughter, Ahlam, was the lucky one. She hadn’t started school yet, so she didn’t have an education to miss.

The slow road to a better life

Kinana and her children fled Syria in 2013. They’ve come a long way since arriving in the village of Ketermaya, in southern Lebanon. They live on the first floor of a two-story building that’s still under construction, but it’s a vast improvement from the garage they first called home as refugees.

The kids are all in school now. But it’s been a tough journey.

Their first year in Lebanon, Kanina faced a choice no mother wants to make. She could only afford to send one of her kids to school. The $60 cost of yearly tuition combined with $40 a month per child for bus fare was too much to send all three.

She chose her youngest daughter, Ahlam.

“I told Alaa, as soon as we can afford to pay for transportation, you can go back to school,” Kanina says.

It would be another year before Alaa and Amal gained access to education again. Fortunately, a private organization created a half-day school that paid for students’ transportation costs.

Alaa Haddad has his mathematics book out where he does his homework every night. Mathematics is his favorite subject.

Alaa Haddad has his mathematics book out where he does his homework every night. Mathematics is his favorite subject.

Amal Haddad holds her mother’s cell phone in her hand, with the app, “Smart Dictionary,” that she uses to help her with her homework.

Amal Haddad holds her mother’s cell phone in her hand, with the app, “Smart Dictionary,” that she uses to help her with her homework.

Amal Haddad holds her mother’s cell phone in her hand, with the app, “Smart Dictionary,” that she uses to help her with her homework.

Amal Haddad holds her mother’s cell phone in her hand, with the app, “Smart Dictionary,” that she uses to help her with her homework.

Addressing the hurdles to education

Money is but one of the many obstacles that keep thousands of Syrian children from getting an education. Refugees also tend to be highly-mobile, encounter language barriers, and face social issues in their new countries, says Sandy Maroun, Media, Advocacy and Communications Manager of Save the Children, Lebanon.

A United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report found that only about 22 percent of school-aged Syrian children have access to formal education in Lebanon today.

In response to this crisis, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education has launched “Reaching All Children with Education in Lebanon,” an initiative which aims to provide more school-aged Syrian children with more learning opportunities. The goal is to enroll 400,000 children in school by 2016.

The first part of the plan was to expand formal education, or schools accredited by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, by creating second shifts in Lebanese public schools so Syrians could attend in the afternoons.

But there are far more refugee students than Lebanon’s public schools can absorb. This has led to a rise in various forms of non-formal education offered by non-governmental, grassroots, and religious organizations. They range from teaching basic psychosocial skills to following the Lebanese curriculum, despite a lack of accreditation.

Still, the number of Syrian refugee children who are out of school equals the total number of Lebanese children in government-run public schools, about 300,000 children.

A non-formal option

Hazim, 7, attends a non-formal school created by the Kayany Foundation that’s a minute’s walk from the tent where he lives with his family. The school’s eight small, clean and bright classrooms, cafeteria area, and play space are situated in a central area between several informal tented settlements in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

The Kayany Foundation runs three non-formal schools that serve over 1,000 Syrian children. Enrollment is provided to the most vulnerable, school supervisor Amneh Zein says, which they have deemed to be kids age six to 14.

Hazim says he likes school so much that he spends a lot of his free time studying. He carries a piece of wood that one of his teachers gave him. It has a smooth surface that he writes on with dry-erase marker.

Two of his siblings have to work to help support the family and can’t go to school. So sometimes, his mother says, Hazim uses the wood tablet to teach them some English.

Faisal, 6, Hazim, 7, and Asmahan, 11, flip through Hazim’s books in their tented home in the Masaab Telyani camp Zahle, Lebanon.

Faisal, 6, Hazim, 7, and Asmahan, 11, flip through Hazim’s books in their tented home in the Masaab Telyani camp Zahle, Lebanon.

Hazim’s school has 17 teachers for its nearly 500 students. The children learn the Lebanese curriculum, but with one major difference. Teachers here speak Arabic, the only language most of the Syrian refugees know, unlike accredited public schools where core subjects are taught in either English or French.

Zein says that this approach, though not part of the formal system, keeps students on track in case they are able to enter public schooling one day.

“Had there not been these schools or facilities for these children, they would probably be engaged in some sort of child labor or engaged in some places that are not very safe for children. It is basically losing a generation to illiteracy, so it is extremely important,” she says.

Hazim says his teachers think he is smart. In response to why they might think that, he responds quickly, “because I am!”

He giggles as he delves back into the pile of books on his lap.

IMG_5956

Hazim, 7, loves the English language and wants to be a doctor when he grows up. He attends the nearby Kayany school and lives with his five siblings and mother in an informal tented settlement in the Masaab Telyani camp in Zahle, Lebanon.

Teaching cooperation with lemonade

At the other end of the non-formal education spectrum are organizations such as Intersos, which focus on psychosocial support.

On a Friday afternoon, a busload of Syrian refugee children from a nearby village arrive at the Intersos center in Mazboud. Here, project coordinator Firas Abi Ghanem shows them how to plant basil seeds in cups to explain how herbs grow.

Several of the children fidget while listening to the lesson, but eagerly jump in once they are given their own seeds to plant and water. They burst with excitement as they stack their cups on top of each other’s so water can drip from one to the next.

Then they push their seeds into the soil and anticipate their future potted herbs.

Firas Abi Ghanem, Intersos project coordinator in the Chouf, runs an activity where he is helping a new group of Syrian refugees learn how to let the water out of the bottom of their cups, which have freshly planted basil seeds.

Firas Abi Ghanem, Intersos project coordinator in the Chouf, runs an activity where he is helping a new group of Syrian refugees learn how to let the water out of the bottom of their cups, which have freshly planted basil seeds.

Every month, the center’s small team serves about 250 Syrian refugee children. Mona Kinana’s children, Amal, Alaa and Ahlam are among them.

UNHCR funds the program and transportation costs.

Abi Ghanem says while the program is not strictly academic, it is also not just “play” to keep children busy. The program teaches and reinforces skills that the children need such as teamwork, cooperation and communication. These are crucial skills for any children, but especially refugees, who have often witnessed so much violence that it has changed the way they interact with others.

“Even learning how to plant a seed or make a cup of lemonade, this is a skill and we’re doing it together,” Abi Ghanem says.

Children get a chance to work through other issues thanks to the diversity of psychosocial activities provided, such as theater, plays, cooking and gardening. Even Amal, who almost became a child bride herself when her family lived in Syria, found it helpful to act in a fictional portrayal of early marriage, as it was an issue she had personally experienced.

Kanina says the Intersos program was really important for her children, especially before Alaa and Amal could go back to school. It was not only a place to learn skills, but more importantly, she says it gave them a reason to look forward to the next day.

Hope remains

These refugee children may not have access to formal education, but these non-formal options provide a source of hope and structure that many of their peers don’t have.

Hazim does not yet understand accreditation or what will happen when he turns 14 and completes the school he currently attends. What he does know is that he is happy and has a dream for himself.

“In the future, I want to be a doctor,” he says.

Ahlam, like Hazim, has a dream too. She wants to be an English teacher. She practices her English daily on her “chalkboard,” the outside wall of her family home.

Kanina says since all three of her children are attending school, “now there is excitement.”

“There is thinking for tomorrow, what they will wear, what activities will happen. Every day they come back, and for them, there is always hope for tomorrow,” she says.

Ahlam Haddad, 9, in the village of Ktermaya, Lebanon, wants to be an English teacher and practices her English daily on her "chalkboard" on the outside wall of her family home.

Ahlam Haddad, 9, in the village of Ktermaya, Lebanon, wants to be an English teacher and practices her English daily on her “chalkboard” on the outside wall of her family home.

As dusk turns to dark, Kanina and Ahlam stand together in front of the chalkboard wall. Kanina writes a sentence in Arabic so her daughter can trace it with a piece of chalk.

It says, “Knowledge is light, ignorance is darkness.” Then Kanina adds, “Even if it is on the wall.”

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