SYRIAN WOMAN WHO MANAGES AVSI EDUCATIONAL PROJECTS IN LEBANON SHARED HER EXPERIENCE WITH REFUGEE CHILDREN
Walking for the first time across the streets of New York, Rana Najib gets emotional when she sees the Syrian flag among the 200 that surround the Rockefeller Plaza.
“I wasn’t expecting to see the Syrian flag here,” explained Ms. Najib.
Monday, July 18, 2016 was a very long and emotional day for this 38-year-old Syrian who had to move to Lebanon to find a better way to work and live after the war in Syria began. Currently managing educational projects for AVSI in Lebanon, Ms. Najib was invited by the United Nations to participate in a fundamental, pressing and, in her case, very personal discussion: how to address large movements of refugees and migrants. Her participation in an interactive multi-stakeholder hearing at the UN was fundamental for two reasons: she is originally from Syria and she works daily in the field with refugee children and adolescents, a background and experience that most of the panelists couldn’t share with the audience.
“There were a couple of Syrians in the audience, but surprisingly none on the panel,” commented Ms. Najib after the event.
The main goal of the multi-stakeholder hearing was to provide an opportunity for member States to exchange views and to inform the inter-governmental negotiation toward the finalization of an outcome document for the United Nations Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The Summit will be held on September 19, 2016 at the UN headquarters in New York. Based on the most recent UNHCR Global Trends report (June, 2016), 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015, the highest number since UNHCR records began.
Ms. Najib exchanged ideas with a diverse group of speakers representing other international NGOs about the specific theme "Reframing the narrative on migration and refugees in the context of the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda”. The other participants in the debate were Mr. Richard Bennett, Representative and Head of Amnesty International's UN Office; Ms. Sybil Nmezi, Executive Director of Generation Initiative for Women and Youth Network; Ms. Sandra Vermuyten, Head of Campaigns of Public Services International (PSI); Ms. Sandra Saric, Vice President of Talent Innovation, Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). They addressed the theme by answering three different questions. The first one was “How can we combat xenophobia and discrimination and build a strong narrative that recognizes the positive contribution of migrants for inclusive growth and sustainable development?”
Based on her experience with AVSI, Ms. Najib’s answered that this is an issue that needs to be addressed using three different but combined efforts:
“One of the key elements to combat discrimination and build a strong narrative that recognizes the positive contribution of migrants is to engage local communities to work closely with refugees through social and educational projects,” said Ms. Najib. “The second element is to analyze discriminatory and exclusionary practices that prevent refugees from effectively participating in society, many times, resulting in a waste of talent. Finally, acknowledging the crucial role of the media can help build a positive image about the refugees.”
During the panel, Ms. Najib and the other participants also had to answer two more questions: “How can we encourage national and global leaders (political, social, economic and religious) and the media to promote a more positive narrative on migration and refugees?” and “How could NGOs and civil society, including the private sector and academia, contribute to a global campaign to counter xenophobia, as proposed by the Secretary-General in his report for the 19 September Summit?”.
“Unfortunately, some politicians constantly use bad narratives when talking about refugees to get consensus. This is one of the reasons why I believe that a great effort has to start from the bottom. We have to help citizens to accept that we are living in multicultural and pluralistic societies. In our globalized world, this is a fact that cannot be stopped or fought,” said Ms. Najib. “In other words, living together (different people from different countries, cultures and religions) can be a positive and enriching experience rather than a negative condition that needs to be avoided at all costs.”
Back in Lebanon, Ms. Najib is working on the project “Supporting the enrollment and retention of vulnerable children in public schools in Lebanon”. Funded by UNICEF and implemented by AVSI, the project aims to work with a total of 12,000 children and their families through four different initiatives: early childhood education activities targeting 4,230 children aged 3-6 years without access to Kindergarten; outreach activities to explain how families can enroll their children in the Lebanese formal public education; homework and remedial support that targets enrolled and at-risk children in public schools, and life skills activities for adolescents.
“Through this project, we are targeting children of all ages, starting from the little ones who have never been to school, but also helping families understand how to enroll their children in the Lebanese School system and provide after school support for those who are about to drop out because they are struggling”, explained Ms. Najib.
Rana’s participation in the multi-stakeholder hearing had a considerable impact on her life, both professionally and personally.
“This opportunity taught me a lot about international cooperation and gave me the opportunity to network with partners and stakeholders,” said Ms. Najib. “Personally, I’m going back to Lebanon feeling more confident”.
Anaan has a dream: to own a large field of olive trees back in her home town, Idlib, Syria. In the meantime, while the Syrian War is still devastating her country, she attends one of the seven courses for agricultural workers in Lebanon organized by AVSI and funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MAECI) with a €1,5million grant. Since 2015, the Training and Education in the Agricultural Vocational Schools in Lebanon project, also called FESTA, aims to improve the quality of Lebanese technical agricultural school educational system through reinforcing teachers technical and educational skills and improving the educational offer for the students of the seven Lebanese agricultural vocational schools.
Today, Lebanon welcomes hundreds of thousands of Syrian and Iraqi refugees and more arrive every day. The “foreign” presence in the country represents at least one fourth, and possibly more, of the current Lebanese population. This has become a serious challenge for a country where the political balance is already unstable. AVSI has been working with refugees in Lebanon since the beginning of the Syrian Civil war. In the camps, AVSI develops educational projects with children, supports women and provide jobs to the men.
After five years of war, it also became necessary to think about the young generations of refugees who will soon start looking for jobs, specially in the agricultural sector, which contributes with 4% of the Lebanese GDP, employs around 8% of the active population, and covers 22% of the Lebanese land. The “Peaceful and Comprehensive Education in Seven Districts of Lebanon” (PEACE) project, funded by the European Union with a €700,000 grant and implemented by AVSI Foundation; and now the FESTA project, were born from this need: assist the Ministry of Agriculture to develop its curricula and provide the schools’ teachers with an opportunity to further enhance their skills.
Living in Lebanon since she had to flee Syria with her family, Annan is happy to have the opportunity to attend FESTA courses. She and her friends have the opportunity to learning many new agriculture skills: how to sow, how to differentiate plants, and how to grow crops better using modern culture techniques. A small step toward her dream.
By Marco Perini*
When we mention the name “Ashti1" in Erbil, everybody knows what we are talking about. “It’s the camp for displaced people, the most ramshackle one, the one next to the “fancy” area,” says somebody, being immediately interrupted by another person with a totally different point of view. When we live in a constant state of emergency, contradictions are part of our daily routine: in the same city, in the same neighborhood, in a single strip of land that hosts thousands of those displaced by the war in Iraq, there are refugees who live better than others.
The previous discussions about Ashti1 took place in an area located to the north of Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan that only three years ago planned to become the Dubai of Iraq and today is facing a dramatic economic crisis due to the plunging price of a barrel of oil. There are dozens of abandoned construction sites and we can only see the skeletons of those buildings that were supposed to be luxury high rises.While 1,5 million government employees - out of a total of 4 million people - have been receiving only half of their salary for the last eight months, 1.5 million displaced Iraqis have arrived in Erbil, fleeing from Daesh Islamic State violence.
Ashti1 was created in this world of contradictions. In August 2014, 1,000 refugees arrived in Erbil fleeing from Mosul and Qaraqosh. In the Iraqi city, they found two huge tents (at that time only good enough to raise chickens) and a big field. Slowly, patiently and using a few savings they were able to bring, they built a few new houses. After a while, and with the help of a few Catholic communities, they also installed containers where they could sleep, eat, live. The containers are very small: seven and sometimes even ten people have to fit in an area of 200 square feet. The temperature, outside and inside the tents, is unbearable, but at least the floor is made of cement.
Father Jamal also arrived in August 2014 and since then he has acted as the group manager, creating daily “miracles” of survival. “Soon, they will free our cities from the Islamic State and we will be able to go back home,” says Father Jamal while walking through the camp. He talks with the refugees, each of them with very specific needs: medicines, which are few and expensive; water that never gets to the camp; toilets to be fixed. A good shepherd, Jamal cannot abandon his flock.
In March 2015, seven months after the first group of refugees arrived, 5,000 more came to live on the same piece of land. In a short time, thanks to the humanitarian aid which, in the meantime, had begun to operate at full speed, they built a well equipped refugee camp: they also use containers, but those have a water supply, sewer system, electricity, and external protection. In short, they have everything that is missing in Ashti1, whose inhabitants arrived too early, without making too much noise. For these reasons, even if it doesn’t make any sense, they are destined to remain for a long time in this “second division camp”.
It’s a strange sensation meet Jamella, who is six years old and has a lot of energy to play soccer, and at the same time Father Jamal, who is tired of too many battles. They are both refugees, but for “unknown” reasons, their destinies are totally different.
* Marco Perini is AVSI representative in the Middle East. In Ashti1, AVSI has been working on building new toilets, installing air-conditioning system and giving refugees better living conditions.
by CARLO CIAVONI - photos by MARCO PALOMBI
translated by Victoria and Gianpiero Anelli
MARJAYOUN (Southern Lebanon) – Here, where eight centuries ago the Christians escaping from southern Syria landed, in 2006 the Israelis arrived for the war that lasted 34 days, an answer to Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets and to the abduction of two soldiers from Tzahal, the Israeli military forces. Now, in this area, there is a kind of coexistence under the vigilant eye of the Spanish military contingent of the UNIFIL UN mission. There is a cathedral at Marjayoun, the cathedral of Saint Peter, which has stood there for centuries, in the same spot where it was built. Like the rest of Lebanon, it lives side by side with Muslim places, a mixture of domes and minarets, that brings us back to distant times, when the nearby Beauford fortress, nestled in the mountains, witnessed the bloody battles in 1,100 between Saladin, the tireless Sunni opponent of European crusades, and those Christians who were seeking shelter while fleeing from Syria.
Lebanon, among Christians in the “unofficial” camps of war survivors
The dilapidated shapes of the shantytown: Today, in this large town located a couple of hundred miles from Beirut, and set on a hill 750 meters above sea level, the real novelty is that the Muslim-Shiite population is increasing before one’s very eyes, while the Christian population is diminishing. In spite of this fact, the face of this town, at least in its appearance, remains unchanged. Just a few kilometers from here, just before Israel’s extreme northern border, when it seems one could touch the rooves of the houses of Metulla, (the last village where the flag with the Star of David flies), one can make out the multicolored stains and the dilapidated shapes of the shantytowns populated by Syrians who continue to arrive from the southern border of their country.
All that is left is to make do: A few kilometers from the small Lebanese city along a beautiful road, between valleys and wide open green spaces, one comes close to the Israeli border, patrolled by members of UNIFIL in white armored vehicles. At the end of a downhill stretch, suddenly appear the tent cities of Syrian refugees: that of Marj El Kohkh and that of Ouazzani. Unofficial estimates speak of close to two million people who have gained entrance into Lebanon, with a population of four million, in an area as large as Abruzzo (1/2 of New Jersey) and more or less invisible on the “radar” of the international humanitarian system of reception. In one of the “unofficial” refuges from the most devastating wars of the last thirty years, the Syrians make do as they can, in part with what they have left, in part with aid, but also by working here and there, helped by Lebanese families of the area, who are the guarantors of their stay.
The seed of abuse: Some of the shop keepers extend credit to them. Some even give them free cooked meals, while still others find various ways of offering spontaneous, free support. “We are Christians,” says one robust deli owner, who proudly shows off a large cross tattooed on his arm. “Are we or are we not all brothers and sisters?” The question put to him is, if the tables were turned, would he expect the same help from his Muslim fellow countrymen? His obviously insincere answer is, “Yes, of course. That’s the way things are done in Lebanon.” It is clear, then, that the Syrians are benefitting from a form of help that contains the seed of abuse. This becomes evident from the stories told by some who live in the camps. Many end up in dramatic and painful situations because some unscrupulous Lebanese take advantage of their “unofficial” status and make them slaves, threatening to withdraw their guarantee, which is the only life line that keeps them from returning to survive under the bombing.
Marj El Kohkh and Ouazzani: These are just two more places of refuge, identical to so many others. There is really no need to describe them: the heavy air that takes your breath away under the tents when it’s hot and the paralyzing chill when it is cold; the dust or mud, the crying of the youngest children, the playful shouts of the older kids as they play soccer, the glances of rage, people’s exhaustion, their eyes lowered in shame and resignation. In some way, they try to defend themselves from a sense of powerlessness, which is perceived by breathing in the strong odors that waft from the shacks made of plastic and pieces of wood, by imagining these people who no longer measure time, as if in a mobile movie set that travels from Sabra and Shatila to Beirut, to the Goudebou camp in Burkina Faso, on the border with Mali, or to Dadaab, in Kenya on the border with Somalia, or yet again to Dakhla, in the southwest of Algeria, in the nothingness of the Sahara desert. It helps to think of them this way because it’s as if they played a part in a tragic film, the true victims of a world order, so many who have understood this, but few who have wanted to make change. It’s true that time is no longer measured, but it still passes and leaves its mark.
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…”
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