Children who have fled Syria to Lebanon have witnessed and experienced things no child should.
Each morning at 8am, Ahmed stirs from his blanket on the soil and walks about a mile to the morning shift. Sometimes his two sisters go with him. More children soon join him from nearby potato fields and tents, on their way to the first of the day’s three school sessions. A second wave of small children carrying oversized blue school bags appears at noon, and another in the late afternoon.
Ahmed is usually met with a bear hug from a Lebanese social worker, Maria, who for the past two years has been part social worker, part disciplinarian and, more often than not, mother figure for him and the other Syrian children who attend this makeshift school house in the heart of the Bekaa Valley.
All the children are refugees, most have lost at least one parent, and every one has a story of deprivation and loss. But all seems to be forgotten for a few hours in this school among the crops and tents where the children of war come to learn.
Syria’s civil war is trampling on its children as easily as it is killing its adults. The 400,000 child refugees now in Lebanon represent a lost generation; many who have fled here have been denied an education for three years.
Poverty is not their only constraint. Until recently, enrolling Syrian refugees in Lebanese schools was close to impossible, and getting any form of education at all was almost as difficult.
Things are slowly changing for some. Since early this year, the Lebanese government has allowed double shifts in state primary schools, meaning refugee children can attend the second shift in some schools. Syrians enrolled in the Lebanese system receive formal qualifications when they graduate. But not all are as fortunate.
Schools such as Ahmed’s are considered informal and not recognised by the government.
Syrian teachers are allowed to teach here, but they must stick to a Lebanese curriculum and, at the end of the year, the progress of children is not recognised. That means they cannot advance to secondary schools or be accepted into the state system.
For the eager students in this school though, it clearly doesn’t matter. A group aged between five and eight are sitting outside around a table as their teacher, a businessman from Homs who lost his home and livelihood two years ago, teaches them how to paint.
“Life was different before this,” he says. “But I have found dignity in the therapy of art. I love these children.”
The children watch in silence as he etches small white geese on to a landscape on a wood panel. Then all the children take turns, including Fatima, whose mother died during a winter storm four months ago.
Most teachers live among their students in the informal refugee camps that dot the area. Ahmed lives in one of them with his five siblings. His older brother Nimr, 15, is acting as head of the family, and takes the lead in caring for Kamel, who has not been the same since he pulled his mother’s body from the rubble of their family home in Idblib early last year.
Shortly afterwards, the family’s father, Mohammed, drove his five children to the Lebanese border, waved them goodbye, then left. They have not heard from him since, and have long ago used the small amount of money they had to rent a tent space and buy food.
“We ran away from problems and problems followed us,” said Nimr, squatting on the floor of the tent he now shares with his new wife, Fatima, also 15. “It would have been better if we all died with my mother. It would have been easier,” he said.
“I feel I am not up to this responsibility,” said Nimr, pointing at his siblings. “I cannot feed them.” He holds up a debt book with a long list of IOUs that he cannot possibly repay.
“Lots of these children have suffered so much,” Maria said. “The stories they all tell are heart-breaking. All of them.”
The scale of suffering faced by Syria’s children is a reflection of a society in terminal decline. More than 150,000 people have been killed since the war began, and close to half the country’s 22 million population is now on the move; at least 6.5 million are internally displaced, and almost 3 million have made it into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, where staying alive takes precedence over learning.
Nonetheless, the fear of a lost generation is an increasingly dominant theme among humanitarian bodies which are having more luck reaching vulnerable communities who have made it to exile than in reaching those left behind.
“We need to prevent losing a whole generation of children from Syria. Giving them opportunities to learn, developing their skills and healing the wounds of the conflict is vital for the future of these children and for Syria,” a Unicef spokesman said. – Guardian News & Media