By Simon Ingram
MASHTA EL HAMMOUD, Lebanon, 17 April 2012 – Stepping off their minibus in the mountain village of Mashta el Hammoud, in northern Wadi Khaled, a group of children scampers up the stone steps to their classrooms. While the prospect of maths and Arabic classes may not seem attractive, there’s no mistaking these youngsters’ eagerness for the afternoon that lies ahead.
There’s a special reason for their enthusiasm: Many of the students are Syrian, and this weekly visit to an NGO centre is helping them reclaim the educations that were forced to abandon when they fled the violence gripping their homeland.
An estimated 20,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon; over 9,000 are living in the Wadi Khaled area. Many refugees in Lebanon are reluctant to register for aid, fearing that they, or family members still in Syria, will face retaliation. But their children require assistance, including access to education and help coping with the losses and upheaval they have experienced.
Adjusting to a new life
Twelve-year-old Ahmed* has been taking remedial classes at the NGO centre – the Association for the Empowerment of Women and Support for Children – since the beginning of the year. He says they’ve made a big difference in helping him adjust to the curriculum he’s now following at a local Lebanese school.
“All the lessons that I take in school are repeated to me here for me to understand them,” he said. “That has helped me a lot.”
Although Ahmed has managed to make some new friends, Ahmed still misses the Syrian friends he left behind, and struggles with new subjects that are required in Lebanon, such as French (in Syrian schools, English is the main foreign language students learn).
In one of the smaller classrooms at the centre, a French lesson is in progress. The boys and girls are tightly squeezed into the narrow desks – underlining the centre’s struggle to cope with the growing number of Syrian children in need of assistance. Today, two sisters arrived from the conflict-torn city of Homs, bringing the number of children at the centre to over 80, up from just 30 in mid-2011.
The Association for the Empowerment of Women and Support for Children is one of a number of small, local NGOs receiving support from UNICEF and Save the Children in order to provide educational and other activities for displaced Syrian children and for children from the host community.
Providing psychosocial support
“For the Syrian children, the benefit of these activities is that they don’t feel that they are refugees,” said NGO director Sahar Dendash. “They are being integrated with other children and having remedial classes while at the same time they are not sitting with adults and watching TV and being in that political atmosphere.”
Even so, the impact of events taking place just a few kilometres away across the border is hard to escape. One of the busiest rooms at the centre is set up as a ‘child-friendly space’, a safe area for children to play and engage in creative arts and other activities. One important purpose of the space, however, is to allow staff to identify individual children who need counselling or other help to deal with the effects of the violence they witnessed or experienced back home.
Ms. Dendash says such children are usually easy to pick out. “When the kids first come, when they do artwork, they start drawing bombs and guns and violence. So you can see now the transformation that is taking place – when they start drawing flowers, and other more normal subjects.”
Still, many children are still grappling with the implications their flight from Syria has had on their hopes and ambitions. Seventeen-year-old Sana*, a bright student with dreams of becoming an Arabic teacher, was forced to leave home just months before taking her crucial final school exams.
“I did my best to prepare for the exams and pass them, but because of this situation I won’t be able to,” she said. “I keep on telling my father that I want to go back for the exams. He says if I’m willing to give up my life then I can go. Of course I can’t… I feel that things are going backward and there seems to be no future.”
* Children’s names have been changed to protect their identities