MINYARA, LEBANON // In a small compound of wooden shacks surrounded by tall flowers and fertile farmland about ten kilometres from Lebanon’s northern border with Syria, dozens of Syrian refugee children are sitting in classrooms, eagerly awaiting a lunch that is being whipped up for them in a spotless, brand new kitchen.
With about half of the more than 470,000 school-aged Syrian refugee children in Lebanon lacking access to education and many families struggling to put food on the table, the Ihsan Primary Education Centre is a bit of an anomaly.
The children here have a computer lab filled with donated laptops and a music room with a pile of guitars, percussion instruments and a piano. A cosy library boasts shelves lined with books in Arabic, English and French, and a psychologist visits once a week. The children even have a football coach – and play on the pitch rented for their use wearing kit donated by Arsenal and Manchester United.
As barriers continue to block access to education in Lebanon and jeopardise the futures of hundreds of thousands of Syrian children here, some small non-governmental organisations are stepping in.
These NGOs – like Malaak, the organisation responsible for Ihsan – are managed by wealthy philanthropists whose well-heeled connections ease some of the burden typically associated with fund-raising for refugees.
Asma Abu Izzeddin Rasamny, founder of Malaak and the wife of one of Lebanon’s major car dealers, talks about the “corporate social responsibility” of companies she’s connected with – how they want to donate either goods or funds. And Nimat Bizri, the founder of five schools in the Bekaa Valley that cater to 2,000 students, tells of once raising US$60,000 (Dh220,376) in three hours.
Donors often help to fund a specific aspect of the projects, like the salary of a teacher, meals for refugee families, or instruments for a music room, which can feel a little more hands-on than simply dropping money into a large charity.
Schools like those run by Malaak and Mrs Bizri are also helped by other start-ups in the humanitarian world. These include Thaki, an NGO run by Abu Dhabi resident Rudayna Abdo that collects used laptops and loads them with educational materials before sending them to schools.
All three women seem to operate with a flexibility that is absent from the world of household name NGOs. Charities are often weighed down by their vulnerability to assessment reports and tight constraints on budgets and are limited by the official scopes of projects.
But groups like Mrs Rasamny’s and Mrs Bizri’s are able to meet needs quickly, even if they are not strictly related to schooling. If somebody is hungry, they get fed; if children live far from school, they get free transport on a bus.
After years of dealing with the refugee crisis in Lebanon, access to education is not as simple as having enough school places for spots for refugees.
"This is not just an education-related issue," said Bassam Khawaja, a fellow with the children's division of Human Rights Watch. "It has to do with the broader situation of Syrians living in Lebanon and the bureaucratic constraints put on them by the Lebanese government."
Many Syrian refugee families are unable to afford even the smallest additional expenses. Many have lived here for years, and in the absence of formal refugee camps, a vast majority must pay for their own rent, food and other basic necessities. If refugees manage to find jobs, they are often low paying. According to the United Nations’ refugee agency (UNHCR), 90 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now in debt, with the average family owing $940.
To obtain legal status in Lebanon – which few refugees have today due to a complicated, often insurmountable I process and high fees – refugees have to sign a pledge that they will not work (although a number disregard this rule).
“They can’t pay the fees or costs associated with education such as transportation every month, the costs of uniforms, the costs of basic school supplies,” said Mr Khawaja. “These kinds of small, minimal amounts of money are keeping kids out of school.”
Without the funds for additional costs such as buses to school – which can cost refugees between $10 and $50 per month for each child, according to Mr Khawaja – many refugee families choose to keep their children at home. Facing absolute poverty, a large proportion of families also send their children to work, sometimes at a very young age.
Organisations like Mrs Rasamny’s and Mrs Bizri’s are trying to eliminate some of these obstacles.
“We go to the camps to convince the parents. We give them food, we give them clothes, we give them medicine if they need it, we take them to the doctor – so they will send their children [to school],” said Mrs Bizri.
When Mrs Bizri discovered that two girls from one of her schools had stopped attending because their father had died and they had to go to work and help their family make ends meet, she went as far as paying the family’s rent to keep the students in the classroom.
That case was an exception though, not the rule. Mrs Bizri says they can’t afford to pay the rent for every student’s family, only those in the most dire circumstances – such as households led by a widow.
The lucky ones
The bus at the education centre in Minyara has seen better days, but it does the job.
It picks up children from nearby refugee settlements every morning and brings them to the centre. After lunch, the bus takes them to a Lebanese public school that Syrians attend after the Lebanese go home, and brings them home again at the end of the day.
“We’re in an area where if we don’t bring the kids, they just can’t come,” said Mrs Rasamny.
A teacher accompanies the children to the Lebanese public school to identify the gaps that need filling by the Ishan centre. “Today we are working on creating talents and having civic manners, enjoying childhood and just kind of breaking illiteracy – just reading and writing,” said Mrs Rasamny. “But this is definitely not enough for a whole generation. That’s all I can do personally at the moment.”
But the children at the Ihsan centre are the lucky ones. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian children lack the opportunities these children have been given.
According to the UNHCR, the number of Syrian children enrolled in Lebanese public schools has jumped by 152 per cent over the past three years, rising from 62,664 in the 2013-14 school year to 157,984 this year.
Another 87,600 Syrian children are enrolled in private schools in the country, according to information gathered by Human Rights Watch. But while the percentage of Syrian children in school has increased dramatically in recent years, there are still serious shortfalls.
While the children at the Ihsan centre in Minyara may appear to be in good shape in their schooling, that may only be temporary. The centre only handles children under 15 years old – and access to secondary education for refugee children in Lebanon has proven even more limited than access to primary schools.
According to UNHCR, there are 62,000 secondary school aged Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but only 2,280 – or three per cent – are enrolled in public schools. UNHCR said they did not have figures for how many secondary school students are enrolled in private schools.
As they get older, children come under increased pressure to work and contribute an income to their families.
If they want to continue their education, there are often fewer schools and they have to travel farther. With Lebanese authorities demanding that Syrians older than 15 obtain residency, there is an increased chance that secondary school students could be stopped at checkpoints and run into trouble if they do not have legal status. Even without those obstacles, many topics in Lebanese secondary schools are taught in English or French – languages few Syrian children speak.
University is not even on the radar.
“The big barrier for higher education is honestly that many Syrians don’t see the point in it right now because of their limited opportunities,” said Mr Khawaja. “For older children, like the ones who have only had the Syrian [education] programme, they have no hope of going to university,” said Mrs Bizri.
Today, many Syrian children in Lebanon have been out of school for years. Others have never been inside a classroom. While Lebanon has made moves to improve access to education, there are still hundreds of thousands of children whose future prospects look dim.
Places like Ihsan centre in Minyara are oases of hope. But outside of the centre’s gates, the harsh realities of refugee life returns.
Along a rutted track leading away from the centre earlier this month, Lebanese soldiers and armed men in civilian clothing stood watch over a refugee camp of about 100 people, forcing the inhabitants to tear down their tents. The soldiers and other armed men angrily flagged down the vehicle The National was travelling in, forcing it to stop after the reporter tried to surreptitiously snap a photograph on a cell phone.
"We are moving these people to another land. They cannot stay here," an officer said after deleting The National's photographs and reprimanding the passengers in the vehicle..
Stuck in unending cycles of debt and poverty, some refugees have nowhere to go and end up squatting or staying on land when they can no longer pay rent. For many, survival is day to day and education is just one of the many challenges they face.