March 07, 2017

"We can't reach all the refugee children - I get angry but it makes me work harder"

Children at Beyond Association

Photo credit: Theirworld / Hussein Baydoun

Louise Court

Editor in Chief of Cosmopolitan UK interviews Maria Assi of Beyond Association in Lebanon

Ahead of International Women's Day on March 8, we talk to Maria Assi of Beyond Association in Lebanon about her work with refugee children from Syria.

“We get about 20 new children a week, mainly from Aleppo,” explains Maria Assi, the CEO of Beyond Association

“The children from Aleppo are in a worse state than any of the others. They feel the whole world is against them and we need to build their trust .” 

Walking around the centre's buildings erected on a patch of scrub land in Lebanon’s Bekka Valley you can see how these facilities run by Beyond, a Lebanese NGO, give hope where previously there was none.

Maria, a strong, maternal figure, and her team give warmth, love and structure to the young, shattered lives who arrive desperate for peace. 

For many of the children coming to study, these snatched moments at a centre are the closest to a normal childhood they have experienced since the war in Syria started nearly seven years ago. 

Maria Assi

Photo credit: Theirworld / Hussein Baydoun

Once inside the centre's gates, hugs from Maria and her team are as important as the curriculum that includes literacy, maths and music.

Most of the children live in a neighbouring settlement where home is a makeshift tent constructed from tarpaulin, ropes and hoardings. 

Her work in the centre is as much a labour of love as it is tackling the practical issues of ensuring there is enough money to continue the work. It is about giving the children educational tools for the future as well as saving them from the worst forms of child labour. 

“Every child has a place in my heart - they all have their own story,” she admits, watching a class of kids filing into a hut to perform a song they have written about their feelings on the war and having to leave their homes in Syria. 

“The need is so big when you see a generation that has been damaged. Maybe we are helping 40% of them but 60% are not being reached. 

"They have no education. They cannot read or write. There are 4000 settlements in Lebanon, some have two or three tents, some have 200 to 300. 

"We can’t reach them all. I get angry but it makes me work harder. The world can do more for them.

“They have lost everything. Some have lost hope, they lost their schools, their homes and members of their families. 

Maria has big ambitions for both boys and girls

Photo credit: Theirworld / Hussein Baydoun

“My dream for the children here is that they can achieve their hopes and they can make good choices about their lives. We can give them choices.” 

Her centre doesn’t just teach academic subjects. It is a safe haven where the children process the traumas they have seen and experienced by using music and writing. 

It tackles the issue of child labour trying to ensure that if the children have to work they can find time to study too and educates the families to prevent the girls being married off as child brides once they reach puberty. 

She explains that it is easier to ensure children get vaccinations compared to proper schooling. 

"To have an education it needs to be continuous not just one day," she says.

The world can’t say we don’t have enough money to work with these children. Girls and boys are at risk. Let’s be more humanitarian. A human is a human. A child is a child.

Maria Assi, CEO of Beyond Association

Witnessing so much at first hand, she admits, has changed how she views even the simple things that used to give her pleasure. 

“Before working for Beyond I was in Africa. I used to love the snow, I loved the white colour. Now it gives me nightmares.The first year I was here I was very happy when I saw it snowing - now I am scared of it,’’ she explains. 

The reason is the devastating effect it can have on the refugees – the sheer weight of it damages their tents causing them to collapse. With temperatures of up to minus 15 the families battle the freezing conditions. 

Those who can’t afford firewood resort to burning whatever they can get their hands on, often pieces of plastic piping, bags and old crates - causing other health problems as the toxic fumes from their tent stoves fill the cramped homes. 

“The children breathe in the fumes and need to go to hospital because they can’t breathe properly," she says. 

“Now in each settlement the refugees have been taught how to strengthen their tents and they have specially trained volunteers amongst the refugees to help. 

Asked about Theirworld's #RewritingTheCode campaign - to change the way - girls and women face everyday gender inequality - she has big ambitions for both girls and boys. 

“I would like to see a total absence of war. I would like to see peace," she says.

"The world can’t say we don’t have enough money to work with these children. Girls and boys are at risk. Let’s be more humanitarian. A human is a human. A child is a child.” 

“My dream is for the children to live a normal life. To have centres like this as fun places to meet each other not where they have to come so we can talk to them about the issues of child labour."

  • Act
  • Related Stories