Marjauoun, Lebanon – Half of them are children. That’s the main point of the statistics which place the figure of refugees registered in Lebanon at 800,000. If we also count those that are unofficial, we reach about a million. Right now, we are facing an enormous exodus of women and children under ten years of age from Syria to Lebanon. Most of men, all too often, remain in Syria to fight.
These children haven’t been to school for at least two years, and that is why AVSI’s main goal in the camps is to get as many of the children as possible into the classroom again. There are two important reasons why these children need to get back to their schooling without delay. First, the more that time passes, the more these children will need to receive remedial education classes just to catch up with other children their age. Second, school is one of the only guarantees these children have to a minimum of normality. Being a refugee is not in any way “normal” because you live far away from your home and often far from your family and your village, under a temporary tent. These children escaped from a place of violence, and arrive in a place where the violence has followed them. Because refugee camps are also places of violence. Therefore, going to school, having a teacher, a book and a pen all establish a certain normality that allows these children to regain, even if only partially, a sense of stability.
However, helping these children regain some semblance of normalcy in their lives is not that simple. Lebanese schools operate differently from those in Syria. For example, many Lebanese subjects like mathematics and geography are taught in English and French while in Syria everything is taught in Arabic. Therefore, Syrian children have a difficult time acclimating to the Lebanese classroom. AVSI organizes preparatory and remedial courses for Syrian children in the hope of helping them to arrive at the same level of competency as their companions. At the same time, AVSI makes a considerable effort not to slow down the general progress of the class for Lebanese children which would cause the Syrian children to be seen as holding the rest of the class back.
No matter the development project or humanitarian effort, all organizations run up against what AVSI calls the problem of “the last mile”. In the case of the children at the schools where AVSI works, this means finding the best way to accompany them from the refugee camp to the classroom. The distance is not just a detail: we organize transportation from the camps by school bus and the distance the children travel is great. Sometimes the journey is even complicated by snow. Without the bus the children would simply never get to school and all of our efforts would be in vain. We may work together with UNICEF but even UNICEF cannot afford to pay for everything that the children need. In fact, their needs are always greater than what we have at our disposal.
In this chain long of chain of organizational efforts and consequences there are also the unexpected and extraordinary ‘advantages’ to be gained. One only need to think of the work AVSI did with some families last summer in the camps, and especially with the fathers. Some of them had no intention of sending their children to school, and even kept them from attending. They complained that the education system was not Syrian and that since their children had lost an entire year it would be useless for them to start all over again. Not to mention the fact that they didn’t entirely dislike the idea of their children working given that it would bring a little extra money into the family. But we didn’t give up. AVSI worked patiently with the parents on their relationship with their children and helped them to better understand their children’s needs while exchanging ideas with them on how to meet those needs. Soon we were surprised, many children’s fathers began coming to us to ask if we could help send their children to school. Every day something improves in the relationship with the refugees we work with and it’s impossible to know exactly when something fruitful will come from it. Last year we had 25 children leave the Marj El Khokh camp to go to school, and this year we expect at least one hundred total enrollments.
This is a good step forward, but it’s still not enough. We hope that all 250 children in the camp will eventual attend school. If only a hundred go, that still means that another 150 remain in the camp.
- Marco Perini, AVSI Chief, Lebanon
(Originally published by OASIS, a foundation founded by Cardinal Angelo Scola to encourage mutual understanding and opportunities for encounter between the Western world and majority Muslim world)
Map of AVSI's work with Refugee's in Region
Update: The desire to educate and to be educated remains
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