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Back at school: successes and struggles of Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies

Thousands of Syrian children are now in schools in Lebanon Picture: Tabitha Ross

In August, A World at School visited Syrian children whose families had fled to Lebanon. We told of their longing to be back in school as part of the innovative double-shift school system to help 200,000 young refugees.

We returned recently to visit those children and find out how they are settling into life back in the classroom.

Theirworld – the parent charity of A World at School – has been developing projects to help children back into education, including supporting the double-shift system in Lebanon for Syrian and local students. You can read more here about the visit and hear the thoughts of Theirworld President Sarah Brown in the video below..

Taking part in both of those visits was Tabitha Ross, a Beirut-based writer and photographer who contributes to A World at School. She interviewed three Syrian refugee children now in school in Lebanon – below is her update on their changing lives.

When you’ve read their moving accounts, please take a moment to join the campaign to give one million Syrian refugee children who need to be in school in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Find out how you can play your part.

You can also read more inspiring blogs by Syrian refugee children on our special #UpForSchool Lebanon website

MAYASS, AGE 12

Mayass at school in Saida, Lebanon Picture: Tabitha Ross

TABITHA WRITES…

It was great to see Mayass in school. This sweet and smiling 12-year-old missed four years of education.

Soldiers started turning up at her school in Syria shortly after the conflict began and her parents felt it wasn’t safe for her. After coming to Lebanon 18 months ago, there were no places. 

When I met her in the summer, she had only just started learning to read and write, with help from her older brother Ahmad. She had no idea when or how she could return to education.

A few weeks after I met her, as a result of A World at School’s work with the Lebanese Ministry of Education and pressure on the international community for funding, a number of public schools in Mayass’s area started running the double-shift system – hugely increasing the number of school places available for Syrian refugee children.  

Mayass started school in September and is clearly loving it. Even though she’s been put in a much lower grade than her age, because of all the years she’s missed and the catching up she has to do, she doesn’t seem to mind.

She only had two years of schooling in Syria and was out for four and speaks no French, which becomes more of an issue in the higher grades. So she’s making the best of the opportunity to learn and catch up.

MAYASS SAYS…

Muslim Aid called my mum and said that the Ministry of Education said Syrian students can come to school for free and that my parents should come to this school to register me.  

I was very happy when I first came back and now I’m studying more and more.

The hardest thing is French. The language is so difficult – but because I’m studying hard in school I’m learning step by step. And even though it’s hard I do like it.  My favourite subjects are French and Arabic and Maths.

I’ve been back at school for two months. On the first day back I felt that my life had become beautiful. I was so happy that I would learn and study and fulfil my dream. I want to become a children’s doctor.

But I was scared at the same time. Because I didn’t know any of the students or the teachers and I didn’t know what school would be like. But then I started to make friends and now I feel like they’re my brothers and sisters. I have 20 friends now and they love me and I love them too.

At playtime we play everywhere. We play catch and hide and seek.

Because of all the time I spent out of school, Ahmad and my mum help me to catch up.  

In my class there are just three Lebanese students and all the rest are Syrian. And then in the afternoon shift everyone is Syrian.

I really enjoyed meeting Mrs Sarah Brown. Her husband had come earlier this year and told me I should go to school.  So when she visited me in school I felt so happy and I sent a video with her for Mr Gordon Brown to tell him that I am going to school now, that my dream came true.

AHMAD, AGE 14

Ahmad has moved to a new school Picture: Tabitha Ross

TABITHA WRITES…

I met Ahmad back in August, when he had been out of school for a year and desperately wanted to get back but didn’t know how.

I thought that meeting him again, now he’s back in education because of the double-shift system, he would be exuberant and overjoyed. But instead I found him subdued, worried, even anxious. 

While he’s really pleased to be learning again, and still cherishes his dream of becoming an engineer and helping to rebuild Syria when he grows up, returning to school has brought with it a series of new challenges that are perhaps making him realise the complications and challenges still facing him. 

Getting back into school has not been the easy fix to all his problems that he previously thought.

To start with, he was put into a class with very young children, because of the time he missed and because he doesn’t have his school certificates from Syria. 

I imagine he felt embarrassed to be so much older than his classmates and the work was too easy – he didn’t feel like he was learning after all. 

Now he’s been able to move to a new school and be in a class only a couple of years below his age range. This is better but the new challenge is that it is all in English – a language that Ahmad doesn’t speak. 

It can be hard to keep up at times. He really needs some extra support to catch up in this area, otherwise it will hold him back across the board. 

This is what is causing the lines of worry in his forehead and keeping the bright grin that I remember from meeting him in the summer away from his pale face.

AHMAD SAYS…

I felt so happy when I heard I was going back to school. I finally had a hope that I could succeed through studying. I want to be an engineer when I grow up so I can help to rebuild Syria.

The first day back was a bit strange because I was put in a class with children who were a lot younger than me.

I was put in Year Two, with the six-year-olds because of the time I’ve missed and because I don’t have my certificates from Syria proving what grade I got to. Just two weeks ago I got the chance to move school and now I’m in Grade Seven.

Moving schools changed things a lot. It was too easy and simple before. Now it’s a bit hard but it is better and I can learn.

The new school is bigger, there are a lot more students. There used to be only little kids to hang out with, now I have friends my own age.

The classes are all in English. I love English but it’s hard because I didn’t really study it before and now everything is taught in it.

Meeting Sarah Brown was fun. They filmed us at school and then came home with us and filmed here. I like the film they made.

NOUR, AGE 15

Nour’s teachers say she works hard Picture: Tabitha Ross

TABITHA WRITES…

Nour’s story is particularly sad – she lost her brother in the war, shot on the way to school. She has also lost five other members of her extended family and her sister barely survived being injured in a bomb attack. 

She missed three years of school since her family fled to Lebanon. When I met her at home in August, I carried away a sense of a girl struggling to maintain her hope and her identity in a house dark with tears and mourning.  

It was great to see her in school again. Her teachers say she’s smart, works hard and is having no problems readjusting. 

She seems like she’s loving the opportunity to learn and to focus. It’s not without challenges – she’s got a lot to catch up on, especially in English, which is new to her and will be the language of all her classes next year. 

She cried a little when we told her how well she’s doing and how she must continue to work hard.

Even though she’s happy to be back and doing well, the scars she carries with her from her losses in Syria and those years out of school will always be with her. 

But education is presenting an opportunity to start to put the pain behind her and focus on building a future.

NOUR SAYS…

I’ve been back at school for three months. It’s good but it’s hard. I struggle a bit in English but I’m good in Sciences and Arabic.

I should be in 10th grade but I’m in the sixth. I’m happy to be here because in seventh grade everything is taught in English!  

I was working in a small shop before I came back to school. My mum’s friend told her there was a free school registering Syrian refugees. I had an exam to see if I could enter or not and I passed it.

But when it came to the start of term I didn’t go. The second day, I didn’t go. The third day, I didn’t go. I felt scared.

I’d been out of school for so long, I’d forgotten so much and I didn’t know how to go back. I was scared of the teachers.

Then I thought about never learning again and I felt I had to find the courage to come and join the other children in school. So I forced myself to come.

And after the first class, two girls came and introduced themselves to me and we became friends. After that it became easier.

In the second week I became friends with a Lebanese girl and she knew everyone. Through her I made lots of new friends.

Help to get one million children into school. Sign the Hope for Syrian Children petition.


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