LEBANON: BORN ON MARCH 15, 2011, THE VERY DAY THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR BROKE OUT IN HER COUNTRY, EVENTUALLY LEADING TO THE DEATH OF AT LEAST 250,000 PEOPLE, INAAM HAS KNOWN NOTHING EXCEPT A LIFE SHAPED BY CONFLICT
Dark curly hair. Sweet and piercing eyes. The ability to engage her interlocutor with innocence and, at the same time, ancient wisdom. Inaam is a child of war. During her short but extremely intense lifetime, she has known little but violence, deprivation, and uncertainty. Inaam was born on March 15, 2011, the very day the Syrian Civil War broke out in her country, eventually leading to the death of at least 250,000 people. Since her birth, she has known nothing except a life shaped by conflict. The only place she has learned to call home is the tent where she currently lives with her sisters Shaima and Isram in dusty Marj el Kok, a refugee camp outside Marjayoun, Lebanon. The camp is home to 1,200 Syrian refugees.
“This is her dad,” says Turky Hassam, Inaam's grandmother. “He had many debts back in Syria, so when we fled to Lebanon, he couldn’t join us. He bought a car to support his family, but he wasn’t a good driver, so one day while he was learning how to drive with his cousin, a group of armed man took the car and killed them both.”
“Daddy,” screams the little five-year-old joining the conversation and holding a small and ripped picture of her father.
“I keep showing her the picture, so she can remember him,” explains Turky. “I keep telling her: this is your father. He was a good man.”
As she grows older, every time Inaam sees the picture, she has more questions. Why did they have to leave their house? Why couldn’t her father come with them to Lebanon? Why are they living in a refugee camp? These are questions that haunt not only this five-year-old, but every Syrian child under the age of five. UNICEF estimates that there are 2.9 million children inside Syria and at least 811,000 in neighboring countries who were born since March 2011. In addition, UNICEF reports that since onset of the war, 15,525 unaccompanied and separated minors have crossed Syria’s borders, and an estimated 306,000 Syrian children have been born as refugees.
“It’s the war,” simply answers Turky every time Inaam has a question.
Inaam’s mother remarried a few years ago and moved to Beeka with her new husband. Since then, she rarely visits the girls. Sometimes she calls, but in the last two years she came to visit only once. Turky now takes care of the three sisters with the help of AVSI, an international humanitarian NGO which has been working with Syrian refugees in Marj El Kok since 2011.
“Inaam is a child of war. She has spent her short life running from one village to another, and for the last three years she has been living here in the refugee camp,” tells AVSI’s Lebanon communication officer, Jihane Rahal. “We make sure that these children have access to education, because we believe it is a fundamental tool against violence. We teach them Arabic but also English.”
In Inaam’s camp, like in the others where AVSI works, the priority is formal and non-formal education. Moreover, thanks to a partnership with UNICEF, AVSI has been able to offer Child Protection and GBV (Gender Based Violence) awareness sessions to refugee women. Soon, the NGO will also provide vocational training (sewing, carpets making, etc) to Syrian youth and women inside and outside the camps.
“Since 2011, we have been providing drinking water in the water tanks that the international NGO has placed in most of the camps and we have been distributing food and non-food item kits,” says Marco Perini, AVSI Country Representative in Lebanon. “Last year, we also helped Syrian, Lebanese and Iraqis vulnerable men through a program called Cash for Work. Instead of simply hand them cash, we paid men who live in the camp for their work.”
While the war destroys her country, living in a refugee camp is a hard, but safe choice. When she is not studying, Inaam likes to play with her dolls and run around with her sisters and the other children. Like any other five-year-old child.
“Sometimes, though, I look at them and I notice that they are different from the other children living in the camp…but it’s normal…they don’t have a father…or a mother,” Turky explains. “To make them feel better I keep promising them that soon we will be back home. If God wants, soon we will all be back home. Soon…”
A year after the massacre in Garissa that killed 148 people and injured 79 or more, security in the northern area of Kenya remains fragile. The terroristic group Al-Shabaab, which took responsibility for the shooting, constantly attacks military and civilians while it aims to recruit the youngest, even in Dadaab. In the world’s largest refugee camp, AVSI Foundation is working to give the inhabitants of the camp an alternative to violence through various educational projects.
AVSI main goal is to train 600 primary school teachers through classes in Somali language approved by the Ministries of Education of both Kenya and Somalia. The project is financed by the EU and is implemented by AVSI in consortium with Save the Children UK, and LWF.
Support to Education for Refugees in Dadaab (SERD) is one of the first projects in the area of the voluntary reentry program of refugees to their homes in Somalia, in accordance with the Tripartite Agreement among the governments of Kenya and Somalia and the UNHCR.
By Andrea Bianchessi
Translated by Victoria and Gianpiero Ianelli
A prolonged humanitarian emergency: this is how experts describe the situation in Dadaab, for more than 25 years the most populated refugee settlement in the world. The camp is the product of conflicts in the early 1990s and of repeated periods of drought that have always affected this area.
Here, in northern Kenya, in a semi-desert area on the border with Somalia, live 350,000 people, mainly Somali, but also Ethiopians, Congolese, Burundians and South Sudanese. They are surviving thanks to the help of the international community: they are forbidden to leave the camp and only some manage to earn income with some odd jobs or trade.
Dadaab is a very inhospitable land that so many call home because they were born and raised here and they feel that this is where they belong. And yet, for quite some time, the Kenyans look upon the inhabitants of Dadaab with fear and suspicion, mainly because Al-Shabaab, the terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, recruits their soldiers in Dadaab and periodically attacks civilians and military personnel.
Al-Shabaab outreach in the area is so strong that the road that connects Nairobi with Dadaab is considered one of the most dangerous in all of Africa: it’s possible to cross only with an armed military escort. According to the Kenyan government, on April 2, 2015, exactly one year ago, the commandos who killed more than 140 young people at the University of Garissa, just 100 kilometers away, came from Dadaab.
In Dadaab, the militia finds fertile ground for enlisting new recruits. In a reality where only one out of every two young people is able to go to school, extremism becomes an ideal to cling to, capable of offering something to believe in for those who have only ever known misery and humiliation. There is a great risk that these radical groups in the camp become the only model of life for many young people who are often still children.
Since 2009, AVSI Foundation has promoted educational projects as an essential instrument in the fight against radicalism. AVSI believes that a holistic education of the person is the remedy through which it is possible to propose a way of looking at reality as something positive and to promote the desire for growth, justice, love and truth that are innate in each person. It is this kind of schooling that can and should be supported in order to build a peaceful coexistence.
The SERD Project
The Support to Education for Refugees in Dadaab (SERD) project, financed by the EU in a consortium of AVSI with Save the Children UK and LWF, has as its goal the training of 600 primary school teachers through courses taught in the Somali language and recognized by both the Kenyan and Somali Ministries of Education. SERD is one of the first projects in the area of the voluntary reentry program in Somalia in accordance with the Tripartite Agreement among the governments of Kenya and Somalia and the UNHCR. Reentry into Somalia will be neither suggested nor promoted: the intention is simply to provide skills that can be used in the country of origin and therefore it will be up to each refugee to evaluate whether to adhere to the UNHCR program for voluntary reentry. The security conditions in Somalia are still critical in spite of a newly formed government and increased investment in reconstruction.
The project was born from the experience of AVSI with teacher training in recent years in Dadaab. Today, some of them, like Ali and Mohamed, teach in schools in Mogadishu and in southern Somalia. In Dadaab, they had the opportunity to learn English, but now they need to be able to speak and teach in Somali and to have an understanding of the history, geography and culture of their country. This is exactly the objective of the new SERD project: to provide in-depth knowledge about Somalia for a “Somali” education. Particular attention will be paid to the formation of women, who in the Somali tradition, do not work outside of the home, but who demonstrate a great passion for teaching. This formation will take place throughout the year of 2016, at an overall cost of about 150,000 Euros (250 Euros per trained teacher).
The Experience of Boy and Girl Scouting
There is more than just school. The values of friendship and brotherhood can be promoted in many different ways, starting from the positive use of free time even during school vacations. In recent years, AVSI has created groups of Boy and Girl Scouts in Dadaab.
This is another way of promoting the values of friendship and brotherhood among children and teenagers, and of fostering a positive use of free time, especially during school vacations when Al-Shabaab recruitment activity is more intense. An unexpected positive outcome became evident, when the boy and girl scouts began to convince their peers who had abandoned their studies to re-enroll and continue their education.
AVSI in Dadaab
AVSI has been operating within the Dadaab refugee camps since 2009. The NGO has renovated and built 327 new classrooms in primary schools and is the leading organization in teacher training. Since then, AVSI has been able to train more than 1,250 teachers thanks the close collaboration with the Kenyan Ministry of Education, and to the financial support from the European Union and the U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugee and Migration (BPRM).
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