Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Conflict - 'These Kids Have Nothing. They Come Here to Forget': News

Magazine article Times Educational Supplement

Conflict - 'These Kids Have Nothing. They Come Here to Forget': News

Article excerpt

Crowdsourced cash keeps school for Syrian refugees from closing.

The clouds in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region may be darkening as the winter storms set in, but Ahmed Saab shows few signs of negativity.

Gesticulating widely, he swings open a door to a room full of smiling children, who promptly stand to greet their headteacher. "These are the second years," he says, eliciting a sharp communal rebuke. "Sorry, third years," he laughs.

The leader of the informally named Syrian School of Baalbek has a new spring in his step. Only a few months ago, he had been resigned to losing the institution he founded and that for a year had provided 200 refugee children with their only education. Now an innovative campaign - which crowdsourced the school's first proper funding - has given him and his students fresh hope.

The story goes back 18 months to when Mr Saab, a newly arrived refugee who had been a headteacher in the central Syrian city of Homs, first noticed dozens of aimless young Syrian refugees on Baalbek's streets. He started to ask the children why they were not in school.

The most common answer was that there was simply no space. Lebanon, a country of little over 4 million citizens, is now home to more than 800,000 registered Syrians who have fled the country's vicious civil war. Although nearly 100,000 school-age refugees have been admitted to public schools this year, more than double that number have not. Capacity has been reached and United Nations refugee agency the UNHCR admits that there are now "more children who are eager to enrol in school than we can accommodate".

Mr Saab also found that many had registered in schools but dropped out. Mostly this was owing to language: in Syria the curriculum is taught exclusively in Arabic, whereas in neighbouring Lebanon a mixture of French, English and Arabic is used. Older children in particular found that they could not adjust; racism and even violence against refugees were common.

So Mr Saab decided to form one of the country's first schools teaching the Syrian curriculum. "The (Syrian) students in the government schools are not succeeding, they are not learning," Mr Saab tells TES.

Along with members of the local Syrian community, he raised a small amount of money to rent the premises of another school between 2.30pm and 5pm and found some teachers, promising to pay them as soon as the school got funding.

But that day never came. The UN and most charitable organisations only provide aid to Lebanon's state schools, and numerous funding applications were turned down, with the school's decision to teach the Syrian curriculum often cited as a reason. The school was, Mr Saab says, offered money by various Syrian opposition groups, including Islamic associations, but refused to accept this because it did not want to be seen as political. "We are not with the (Syrian) regime or the opposition - we are on our own," he says. "We do things purely for the kids. These kids have nothing, they just come to school to laugh and forget their lives."

In the end, the school's lack of political allegiances meant that Mr Saab couldn't make it work, so he told the teachers they were free to leave. Remarkably, they all continued to work without wages for another six months, determined to help the children complete the year. …

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