Education in Lebanon: Overlooked Children’s Limbo

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Syrian refugee children, who fled the violence in Syria, stand on a road at the northern Lebanese border village of al-Mouqaibleh, near the Lebanese-Syrian border, 19 July 2011. (Photo: Reuters - Omar Ibrahim)

By: Rebecca Whiting

Published Monday, June 18, 2012

It is the last day of term at Insan School and a buzz of excitement thickens the air. Riotous and gleeful shouts pervade as the bell clamors to be heard. The game seems to be to run away from standing in line, and the wily children are winning.

The children are not desperate for the freedom of summer holidays. Seven year old Layla (the names of all the children have been changed), though caught up in the merriment, says that she is sad that school is finished. “I love coming to school. There is never anything to do at home.” She is a refugee from Syria, attending the school with her nine year old brother and tiny four year old little sister.

The Insan School program (Insan means “human” in Arabic) was established in 2004 as a part of the Insan Association NGO, which is dedicated to protecting and promoting the rights of vulnerable children. There are currently 50 children at the school, from Sudan, Iraq, the Philippines, Egypt, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Syria.

“Our main goal is to never leave a child out of school,” said school coordinator, Mathilde Coussy. “Refugee and migrant children without papers cannot be registered in an official Lebanese school, and they stay at home without receiving any education.”

Insan takes a very holistic approach to providing children with access to education. As well as teaching the children Arabic, English, Maths and Science, the schools is heavily concerned with assessing the children’s living conditions and well-being.

“A lot of these children had no concept of what school is,” said Lala Arabian, Executive Manager of the Insan Association, “Our aim is to prepare them, not just educationally, but also psycho-socially, so that they can enroll in schools and also succeed there.” She explained that coming from diverse backgrounds and many of them having experienced extremely traumatic situations, the children often find it extremely difficult to integrate into public schools. If they are not well prepared, there is a strong chance they will drop out.

Each child’s case is individually looked after by the teaching staff, a psychologist, and the legal team. The school tries in every way possible to support the families in obtaining the necessary papers for entry to Lebanese schools. “It’s not easy a lot of the time,” said Coussy, “And sometimes we cannot solve the problem, but at least the child is getting an elementary education.”

The school focuses on two groups of children. The first are those aged four to eight and the aim of the program is to prepare them for entering grade one of Lebanese school. The other group are slightly older and are mostly refugee children, educated in their home countries, who do not have any foreign language skills. When they start school here and the lessons are given in French or English, they are completely lost. If they are enrolled into a Lebanese school, they would be put in a class for students far younger than them, which needless to say can be a psychologically damaging experience.

Coussy said, “The art classes here really enable the kids to express themselves. Many of them are unable to talk about their experiences and drawing helps them to communicate and to release. It helps a lot.” The school also teaches drama and music classes, and the children’s delight in partaking in these activities is instantly evident.

During the last art class for the year, the children are painting life-size self-portraits to decorate the school with for the end of year party. For some of them it’s only the second or third chance they’ve ever had to paint. Their perceptiveness is keen and their imaginations know no bounds.

Two older boys observe proceedings. Rony is 12, from northern Iraq and he is sitting with Ali, 9, who is Sudanese. He was born in Lebanon and has never left.

The playground is awash with colorful paint, and watching them play together with giddy grins and boundless energy, their mottled backgrounds and diverse nationalities don’t interfere with how they interact together. A helicopter passes overhead and most of the boys follow one leader in gunning it down with their hands as makeshift rifles.

“The majority of the children show symptoms of psychological strain, some severely so, and some mildly,” said Arabian. “You can sense that there is something unsettling them. Many have problems sleeping and suffer from nightmares.”

Insan’s psychologist works with most of the children and their families. Their living conditions go a long way towards explaining their behavior. “As whole families are often sharing one small room, everything that the family goes through happens in front of the children,” Arabian explained, “You can see that they bear the worries of their families.”

There are many varying reasons why the families are living in such harsh conditions. The refugees are in Lebanon after fleeing war or persecution in their home countries. Some are waiting here in limbo before emigrating onwards.

Some of the pupils are the children of migrant domestic workers who have run away from their “sponsor” family, thereby instantly losing their papers. Others come from mixed-nationality marriages that might not be legally recognized. In many cases the parents are here illegally, and they are scared to look for help in case they are discovered. There are also children from Lebanese families who have never been registered and are therefore “stateless.”

When asked about the future of the school, Coussy said that with the influx of Syrian refugees to Lebanon, the number of families approaching Insan was increasing rapidly. “Unfortunately, we have limited space here, so we are now focusing on approaching local Lebanese schools and enquiring into their preparedness for an increased number of Syrian pupils.”

For their last day of school, the children have learnt some dance routines and songs. Their effervescent charm exudes from the stage as they bounce and wave to their parents in the audience all throughout their performance. One cannot but wonder what the future will hold for them, but by a long way the over-riding sensation in the room is joyful. And most striking perhaps is the unquestioning unity and friendship between these diverse children, a less than common sight.

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