Even with shifts, only some Syrians in Lebanon get into school

News Stories, 17 April 2014

© UNHCR/L.Addario
Hanan Abdel Garbou, 11, teaches other children at an informal refugee settlement in a former onion factory in Lebanon's Bekaa valley. She is fortunate to attend a real school and passes on her knowledge to children who don't.

FAYDA, Lebanon, 17 April (UNHCR) "Miss Hanan" stands in the mud before her class her cousins. She turns and writes with a chunk of chalky rock on the door of a makeshift shelter next to her own. The door is her chalkboard, this is her classroom and her class is learning English. She writes the letters of the English alphabet and then pronounces them loudly. The class repeat each letter in unison.

Miss Hanan is 11. Most of her class of seven are the same age or younger. "Miss Hanan" is what they call her; Hanan Abdel Garbou is the boss and she describes herself as very strict. She's also lucky, although at first glance you wouldn't think so. This is Fayda in the Bekaa valley and 70 Syrian refugee families live in makeshift shelters in the ruins of a burnt-out onion factory. UNHCR provides the materials, to build the shelters, the stoves and coupons for food to the refugees here.

Hanan goes to school in the so-called 'second shift'. Lebanon's crowded public schools now open their doors to one wave of pupils in the morning and to a second wave after 2 p.m. Most of the second shift are Syrian refugees, 90,000 of them. Every day Hanan takes the school bus stuffed with 60 other refugee children for a half-hour trip to a school in a nearby town.

"I'm the lucky one in the family," she says. "My older sisters have to work so we can live. They went to school in Syria and wanted to do their school leaving exams but they couldn't."

"We love school," a little boy, a member of her 'class', says loudly and slowly in English. But school for him and the other children in the mud is this door where Hanan has written the English letters. Only half the children in this settlement go to the "second shift".

There are now more than a million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and across the country less than a quarter of the 400,000 refugee children eligible for school actually get to go.

Dora is six and part of the class in the mud. Her aunt says quietly that when she sees the other children lining up for the school bus in the afternoon, she cries. School, real school, is a prize, a dream for many refugee children.

Not far away in the Bekaa valley, in Kamed El Loz, is another school and more English classes. This is the Amel international education centre, set up and funded by UNHCR. This could be called the 'third shift'.

There are 130 pupils here, ranging in age from 6 to 14. They come three times a week in the late afternoon. They have been spotted and recommended by their regular teachers because they need help.

"They have trouble with English," one of the seven teachers at the centre says. "Many of these pupils were taught to see English as the 'enemy' language. So some approach it with fear, some treat English classes as 'free time' and play around. They associate Arabic with their country. The refusal to learn English is linked to the loss of their country. That's what we're trying to overcome."

These are remedial classes and, along with the classes, there is a psychologist to lead discussion groups for pupils to look at their fear and anger.

Meanwhile in the classes themselves, there is dictation. "Is your father at work now?" The teacher reads out as the pupils write. "No, he's not at work now."

One of the best pupils is 12-year-old Nadine. On the wall a sign exhorts the pupils to "make the world a beautiful garden." But Nadine, in fluent English, talks of loss. "I miss my family most. I miss my country."

At the burnt-out onion factory the English class is wrapping up. There are only two sessions a week because 'Miss Hanan' has to work preparing food for her family and helping her mother wash and clean.

"I really like English," Hanan says after class. "And school is great."

Like many refugee children, she was forced to flee her home in Syria and became internally displaced and missed a year of school before coming to Lebanon. She began again in an "informal" school in a tent with a Syrian refugee volunteer teacher. Now she's in the Lebanese system and having to learn not only English but French, in which several subjects are taught.

For her, learning is a privilege, something she realized when she saw the younger sister of a classmate trying to copy letters one day after school. She offered to show her how, and her career began.

And when she grows up? "Oh, I want to be a teacher, an English teacher."

By Don Murray in Fayda, Lebanon

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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