How Lebanon is teaching refugees to thrive, not just survive, and transforming public perceptions in the process

The work done by projects like Maps and the Relief Centre is essential to stop the perception of refugees as "others" outside the bounds of conventional society and a burden on it, writes Henrietta Moore

TOPSHOT - A Syrian child uses a bucket to bale out water from his tent at a refugee camp on the outskirts of the town of Zahle in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley on January 26, 2018.
Lebanon, a country of four million, hosts just under a million Syrians who have sought refuge from the war raging in their neighbouring homeland since 2011, many of whom live in informal tented settlements in the country's east and struggle to stay warm in the winter. / AFP PHOTO / JOSEPH EID
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The suspected use of chemical weapons against civilians in Douma and the subsequent western military response has put the international spotlight firmly back on the horrors of the Syrian conflict.

The war, now in its eighth year, has left an estimated 500,000 dead and displaced nearly 13 million people – about six in 10 of Syria’s pre-conflict population. No nation in recent decades has had such a large percentage of its population displaced.

While the western media narrative has focused on the arrival of refugees in Europe, more than 85 per cent of displaced Syrians who have fled abroad have gone to neighbouring countries in the Middle East and North Africa, principally Turkey (3.6 million), Lebanon (1m), Jordan (660,000) and Iraq (250,000), according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

As a region, the Middle East has unfortunately become accustomed to hosting refugee populations, most notably the Palestinians displaced by the 1948 and 1967 conflicts. Even today, at least 1.5m out of 5m Palestinian refugees and their descendants live in refugee camps, often in squalid conditions. While their rights vary depending on their country of residence, most of these "established" refugee communities struggle with similar problems: overcrowding in substandard accommodation, high unemployment rates, poor access to health and education and lack of sanitation.

That so many people are thrown a lifeline in their time of need is of course admirable in many respects. But the fact that such a high proportion of them have remained in limbo ever since, struggling on the margins of their adopted countries, should make us reflect. Quite apart from the geopolitical context, there has been a failure on the part of the international community to empathise with this plight or to do anything meaningful to alleviate it.

Seen in this context, the Syrian refugee exodus has heaped further pressure on an already volatile scenario.

Perhaps more than any other, the country which best encapsulates the complexity of the problem is Lebanon. After accepting hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees, it was devastated by its own civil war and then occupied by Syrian troops for nearly 30 years. Then, when Syria itself imploded, it accepted a further million refugees from that disaster zone. Today, one in four of Lebanon’s 6 million-strong population is a refugee, by far the highest proportion in the world.

Syrians in Lebanon face a bleak existence. More than three-quarters live below the official poverty line and 60 per cent are in extreme poverty, surviving on less than $3 per day. At the same time, the strain placed on an already fragile economy and society has been immense. Many Lebanese feel that international aid has been funnelled solely towards refugees, without recognising the wider impact on Lebanese citizens. Tensions are high and last year Lebanon’s Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, complained that the country was at “breaking point” after being turned into “[one] big refugee camp”.

While incidents of outright violence have so far been rare, many Syrian refugees complain about a growing resentment directed towards them. But with about 75 per cent of Syrians lacking legal residency in Lebanon, they face extreme difficulties finding employment or accessing education, among a host of other problems. Effectively, they are trapped in a legal halfway house that deprives them of the tools they need to forge a normal life and contribute economically and socially to their new country.

In spite of the odds stacked against them, grassroots activists are doing what they can to ease the most crushing impacts of poverty and prepare Syrians in Lebanon for the future. One such organisation is Maps (Multi-Aid Programmes), run by an inspirational 33-year-old neurosurgeon, Dr Fadi Alhalabi. Having fled Damascus himself in 2013, he knows all too well the difficulties facing his compatriots as they attempt to rebuild lives shattered by war.

He has established a network of nine Al Amal schools (named after the Arabic word for hope), which now have 3,500 students enrolled and three medical centres – including a specialist breast cancer centre – catering for both refugees and the local Lebanese population in the Bekaa Valley.

But what makes his work all the more astonishing is the scale of Dr Alhalabi's ambition. He doesn't just want refugees to survive but to thrive. Not content to just teach basic literacy and numeracy skills, he has established an "innovation centre", teaching youngsters computing, robotics, engineering and creative subjects such as art and design. It is already paying off: one cohort of students has already competed in – and won – a Lebanon-wide school robotics competition and travelled to an international competition in Kentucky in the US while another group recruited from a camp close to the Syrian border are learning artificial intelligence (AI) coding skills.

As well as inspiring and motivating a younger generation who might easily give in to despair at their circumstances, Dr Alhalabi’s work is doing something crucial: he is changing the way people think about refugees. By showing the human potential contained within the refugee population and providing positive spaces for them to interact with wider Lebanese society, he is demonstrating how integration can happen in practical terms.

This is important if we are going to break down the barriers that encourage people to view refugees in abstract, negative terms – as "others" outside the bounds of conventional society who represent a burden on it. Instead, it helps to create a new paradigm, seeing refugees as integral co-creators of new kinds of social value, with unique experiences and talents to bring to the table.

This is a pressing issue for Lebanon but it is also one that more communities around the world are going to have to face up to as mass displacement – by war, oppression, poverty or climate change – becomes more prevalent. According to the UNHCR, an incredible 65.6m people are forcibly displaced globally, the highest figure since the organisation was created. With global events showing how increasingly interconnected we are, it’s no longer good enough to turn a blind eye, pretending either that refugees don’t exist or will simply "go home" one day. There needs to be some recognition that, as fellow human beings, they’re just as deserving of dignity and prosperity as everybody else.

With this in mind, UCL’s Institute for Global Prosperity has recently launched the Research, Education, Learning, Information Technology, and Entrepreneurship for the Future (Relief) centre, a unique project linking academic expertise in Britain and Lebanon to create a blueprint for how communities worldwide can better cope with the effects of mass displacement and to build integrated societies that value the contributions of refugees. With participation from the American University of Beirut, the Centre for Lebanese Studies and on-the-ground NGOs, policymakers, businesses and social enterprises – including Dr Alhalabi’s Maps – we are conducting a programme of work across themes such as the urban fabric, education and inclusive economic growth to develop a coordinated response to the problems faced by refugees and receiving countries and propose solutions that work in the real world.

Our efforts may be only one small part of the jigsaw when it comes to mapping out a more prosperous future for refugees. But we hope that by starting with the right principles, we can play our part in changing perceptions, moving the debate on from seeing refugees as a problem too big to tackle, to an opportunity to harness human potential.

Professor Henrietta Moore is director of the Institute for Global Prosperity at University College London, where she is chair of culture, philosophy and design