Young Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon tell of heartbreak and hope

A World at School, Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies

Syrian refugees Abdul, Ahmad, Nour and Goufran

Every day I have the honour of working with over 500 young people from 88 countries, all of them campaigning for education as Global Youth Ambassadors.

I give advice, support, connect young people with each other and try to do whatever is possible to help them as we all work towards creating change.

But what strikes me most about working with all of these young people is how so many of them are able to overcome unthinkable odds and even consider themselves privileged just because they have an education or are going to school.

One youth, who was a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, told me he likes to speak to young people who are less privileged than him to encourage them to keep working towards an education. It’s hard for me to think of that person. And if he is privileged then what am I?

I was able to attend the top high school in my state free of charge. Then went to university and graduate school without barriers.

Nour and Goufran get involved with #UpForSchool Petition

I have a stable job; a job which recently took me to Lebanon where I met with youth and advocates for Syrian refugees. While there I met with our partner, and Global Faiths Coalition for Education member, Muslim Aid to talk to four young out-of-school Syrian refugees and a Palestinian refugee who is getting straight As against all odds.

Today is World Refugee Day and I’d like to share these five stories to incite others to advocate for change. But when sharing their stories it is important for me to first give you the context of my own privileged perspective. To honour them and to help remind each of us of the privileges we often take for granted.

At the end of 2014 there were 59.5 million forcibly displaced people around the world, compared to 51.2 million a year earlier and 37.5 million a decade ago.

Out-of-school children are at greater risk of violence, rape, child labour, prostitution and other life-threatening or criminal activities. Education can saves lives and play a major part in the protection of refugee children. These aren’t just numbers, they are people.

I had the privilege to meet with five of them who I hope will be remembered as individuals, each with their own story, rather than just part of the millions of refugee children.

Ahmad works with his father to help pay for food

The first youth I met was Ahmad, who flashes the biggest smile every time you make eye contact with him. He’s 14 and has been out of school for a year.

The last day he attended school in Syria, a man stormed the school aiming to attack everyone in it. He fled with his family that day.

Now, during the day he works with his father in a gas station to help them pay for food. All he wants to do is be like his other friends and go to school.

He dreams of working towards becoming an engineer “to rebuild Syria”. At 14 he’s already keenly aware that he may be part of a “lost generation”.

When I talked to him he said: “What are we going to be in the future? We will be illiterate and it will be like we turned back time.”

This is his fear for the generation of out-of-school Syrians. A fear of reversing the cultural and economic progress Syria has made over the last century.

Abdul, 11, has not been at school for three years

Ahmad wasn’t the only child labourer I met while there. His friend, Abdul also works full time. At only 11 years old, Abdul works in a factory assisting seamstresses manufacture purses.

He’s been out of school for three years, completing up to grade two. Sadly, neither of their stories are unique.

In Lebanon, an estimated 70% to 80% of children out of school are involved in child labour, equating to 300,000 to 400,000 children.

Like Ahmad and Abdul, these children are working because their families are forced to choose between providing food for themselves and sending their children to school, but going hungry. It’s an impossible choice that millions of parents have to make every day around the world.

Although not all Syrian refugee families are forced to ask their children to work, millions more cannot afford to send their children to school. Nour and Goufran are both not in school in part because of this, as well as the language barriers they faced.

Nour dropped out of school at the age of 11

Although both Syria and Lebanon have Arabic as their national language, Lebanon integrates both French and English into its curriculum.

Nour and Goufran are both 14 and left school when they were 11. They completed grade five but could not keep up with their peers who were accustomed to learning in three different languages.

With the dual burden of crippling school fees and inability to follow along with their peers, both girls dropped out.

Goufran dreams of becoming a teacher because she feels she “needs to spread the word” of the importance of education to ensure others get the chance to learn in the future.

Nour, who faced violence in Syria, has also lost two of her “most precious” family members. She said: “I’ve lost my father and my brother in the war. The only way to make them proud is to become educated and be a role model for my other siblings. My only wish is to go back to school, go on to university and become a nurse so I can help others.”

In response to this crisis Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education has implemented a “double-shift” system where local children are taught in the morning and refugee children later in the day.

Goufran dreams of becoming a teacher

This year, over 100,000 Syrian school-aged children have been enrolled in Lebanese public schools – up 21% from last year. But this is not enough.

Despite this, funding to provide education in conflict situations is completely inadequate. In 2014, only 1% of global humanitarian aid was allocated to education in emergencies – representing less than $0.02 spent per child per day – unacceptable by any standard.

This is why A World at School and other education advocates are calling for a global fund for education in emergencies to prioritise and coordinate an effective, rapid education response to prevent losing the potential of entire generations of children.

We are also urging the mobilisation of donor funds to support education for more than 400,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. You can back our calls by signing the #UpForSchool Petition.

The final story I want to tell is a positive one. Fatima, 13, came to Lebanon from Palestine and was able to enter school without taking entrance exams because of her excellent school record.  She achieved a scholarship to pay for fees and school materials.

Fatima got a scholarship to pay her fees and materials

Although Fatima was previously French-educated, taking classes in English has been difficult. She’s maintained her straight A grades and works tirelessly to prove herself.

Sadly, in the context of Syrian refugees, Fatima is among the most privileged. So now let’s bring it back to you and I. We have access to internet. Maybe you even own your computer. And what may seem the simplest and yet the most life-altering privilege is that you are reading this.

Tens of millions of youth and refugees are out of school and can’t even read or write. We need to use our privilege to be vocal for those without power, and to empower them to create change.

Sign the #UpForSchool Petition, tweet at donor countries, post articles online and talk to your friends. Nothing is too small because if we all collectively call for change, we will be heard.

While in Lebanon I met with Feyrouz Salameh from Mouvement Social, who stated it brilliantly: “When we started we wanted to understand the children not for them to understand us.

“When a child isn’t learning it’s not because something is wrong with them, it’s because there is something wrong with their surroundings – no support or lack of teachers or even schools.”

Read more about World Refugee Day…


Record number of dispalced people and half of them are children

TV show teaches Arab child who are out of school

More news

See all news