Sonbola gives Syrian refugee children the skills to shape their own futures

Children in conflicts, Education funding, Education in emergencies, Teachers and learning

Syrian refugee children in Lebanon take part in Sonbola’s Arab Reading Challenge. All pictures were taken in January and appeared on Sonbola’s Facebook page


At first Massa Mufti just wanted to help. To volunteer her education expertise to suport Syrian children whose families had fled from the conflict into neighbouring Lebanon.

But when she saw the huge scope of the educational crisis and the gaps in the educational interventions being provided by humanitarian agencies, she decided to take action.

Massa wanted to develop an educational model that addresses those gaps in a comprehensive and sustainable manner.

So she founded Sonbola – a non-profit organisation working in the refugee camps of the Bekaa Valley to empower and equip Syrian children and young adults with the skills needed to shape their own lives.

“Education has always been my career,” said Massa. “Now it has become my cause. It is about saving a generation, about the future of the children.”

Sonbola was founded in the autumn of 2014. But already it has helped more than 2200 children through its non-formal education programme and another 1300 by providing transport and supplies to help them enroll in formal education at Lebanese public schools.

Despite the cold, children of the Sonbola Choir attend rehearsals

That is rapid and remarkable progress for such a young organisation. But urgent action is exactly what’s needed to help the 1.4 million school-age Syrian refugee children living in neighbouring countries.

This week the international community will be in London for the Supporting Syria and the Region conference, where heads of state and government will be asked to pledge funds for humanitarian projects, including educating a generation before they are lost.

But Massa – an education expert with two decades of experience – insists it’s not enough to simply put children into school. Quality education is vital, especially at time of crises and uncertainties.

Many children have lost touch with education over the past four years. They need to receive a quality education from well-trained teachers and experts in psychosocial support to help them deal with the trauma they have experienced and reconnect with learning.

She said: “We have created a learning model and we feel comfortable that we can replicate that model into another region such as in Tripoli or in Turkey, or in Syria when the situation permits.

“We have clear objectives and well-defined learning outcomes unlike what people think of non-formal education. We can measure the learning progress of children and improve their academic weaknesses and nurture their strengths and talents. It is workable, it is cost-effective and it is replicable.

“The first challenge in schooling is enrolment. The second challenge, and the more critical one, is continuity – we don’t want children to drop out. We want them to pursue their education path, succeed in school and thrive. Our programme should not be a substitute for school. It is a support.”

Sonbola takes children by bus to Lebanese public schools

To achieve this, Sonbola provides three core programmes in the Bekaa Valley:

  • Tamkeen – addresses children’s weaknesses in academic performance and learning skils in four areas (math, English, Arabic and science) and provides computer education and psychosocial support through art, music and drama – citizenship and peace education values are integrated across all subject areas and through a programme called “The Little Citizen”
  • Taaleem – supports the formal education of children, helping their enrollment in public schools by providing transportation and school supplies
  • Tadreeb – empowers Syrian teachers by training them in many skills such as interactive learning, child protection and psychosocial support

Key to Sonbola’s non-formal educational programmes is the link to lifelong learning.

“This is our slogan, the right of every child to lifelong learning”, said Massa. “Therefore, our aim is not to focus on content only but rather on developing thinking, personal and learning skills, the skills that are essential to acquire in the 21st century.

 “Our remedial classes are science, maths, English and Arabic. They are not done in the classic school way – we teach through experiments and projects.

“Our science class is not a class. It is actually a science lab. Children do an autopsy of a rabbit’s heart or they do experiments with lights. It’s like a mini science museum.

A young girl takes part in a remedial maths lesson

“In English, we put them in a conversation or in a sketch. They have to do a play and indirectly get to learn their grammar. It’s relevant, it’s fun, it’s engaging.

“What is key today is to work on a golden opportunity which is the vital complementarity between formal education and non-formal education”.

As someone who worked in both sectors and with experience in curriculum development and education policies, Massa stressed that what is needed today is the mobilisation of all resources in the smartest and most cost-effective manner in order to respond to the scale and quality of the Syria education crisis.

As part of the Hope for Syria’s Young talent campaign run by A World at School ahead of the London conference, Sonbola found many girls and boys with special skills – from rapping and football to writing poetry. You can read their stories here.

Already more than 200,000 Syrian children have enrolled in Lebanese public schools through the double-shift system – where the same building is used for local and Syrian students at different times.

The plan is to send one million refugee children to school in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan this academic year. But donors at the London conference need to step forward with the funding needed to achieve that.

Children learn new art techniques to express their feelings

Massa said: “It is a very good solution to protect the children, to let them go to formalised education and get certificates. But what is still lacking big time is transport to enrol these kids and quality education.”

That’s where Sonbola’s programmes step in to bridge the gaps. 

“Our aim is to improve the lives of Syrian children and young adults by empowering and equipping them with comprehensive and relevant learning skills,” said Massa. “This will allow them to shape their own future and the future of their country.”

Learn more about Sonbola on its Facebook page, its website and its Twitter feed.

NOTE: Theirworld – the parent charity of A World at School – is not only campaigning to get children into the double-shift schools but also working alongside key partners such as Sonbola to ensure children get to school safely, are protected in school and supporting their transition back into school.

Theirworld has been piloting low-cost interventions that can support children in their learning within the double shift – a snack at the start of the day, language support and integrating e-learning to improve quality of learning.

More news

See all news