BEIRUT: For Aziza, a 30-year-old refugee from Aleppo, time has been standing still since she came to Lebanon a year ago. While living in Hay al-Sellom, she hasn’t had much to fill her time other than household chores while her husband works as a day laborer.
When she heard about a program that offers seven months of classes and internships to gain practical experience, Aziza was thrilled.
“I really like to learn, and I am happy to be doing something again,” she told The Daily Star, adding that life in Beirut’s southern suburbs was tolerable but that she missed leading a more active life. “I like coming to the ... center a lot, and it really gives me hope of doing something else in the future.”
Aziza is participating in an NGO-led program that spans Lebanon and offers refugees classes in topics ranging from English to information technology, in the hope that the students will not only manage to sustain themselves while waiting out the Syrian war in Lebanon but will contribute to rebuilding Syria when the conflict ends. The program, based at the local youth center, is helping 5,000 young men and women.
Aziza wasn’t the only excited student to turn up at the school.
“Every single day, people are coming to my desk, wanting to learn something,” administrator of the EU-funded Hay al-Sellom Youth Center, Soukna al-Hawla said. “I expect that people will be able to master the basics of IT specifically, and they will be qualified to find a good job either here in Lebanon, or, with time, in Syria.”
While male refugees are often able to find work as day laborers, work options for Syrian women have been almost nonexistent in Lebanon.
“Women are very eager to learn something here since they are at home and are not doing much,” Hawla said.
Keeping the refugees occupied is indeed a struggle, said Zeina Hasan, mental health director at the International Medical Corps. She said she found refugees very eager to take part in events focused on schooling or mental health.
“Refugees are extremely willing to participate in activities, and if anything are always asking for more events to take place,” she said.
“It largely has to do with the fact that the activities allow them to escape from their current realities, even if only for an hour or two every day or a couple of days a week,” Hasan said, adding that women were an easier group to target, since men were often occupied during the day.
“Men are more difficult to engage because the activities usually take place during working hours, whereby the majority are often too preoccupied with searching for a job.”
At the same time, she said, it is very important to reach out to men as well, since they are often under more pressure to provide for their family.
And although men are not always as eager as women, Hasan said this could be attributed to a dearth of activities targeting them.
“With the current influx and the sheer number of Syrian refugees, we have to be realistic about the number of people we can reach and that our collective efforts will never be able to fully satisfy the demand.”
Moreover, due to security concerns, activities and outreach can only take place in certain areas.
“The security issues in certain areas hamper some of the efforts in reaching all of the population. As such, community centers are almost always located in safe hubs consequently leaving other areas, which may house the most vulnerable, with little or no activities,” Hasan said.
Fortunately, NGOs have begun a mobile outreach program for areas of the country where little help has been provided, she said, adding that NGOs had been focused more on mental health and providing training and activities recently.
Still, these organizations have been more occupied with providing health care, food assistance and housing for Syrian refugees in the short term.
According to Kamel Mohanna, the director of the Amel Association, which runs the center in Hay al-Sellom, the program has a budget of 1 million euros ($1.4 million) – enough to last two years. He said the goals of the center go beyond providing short-term assistance or recreational distractions.
“This program is also to build the future state of Syria and give them skills to survive while being in Lebanon,” Mohanna said, adding that the refugees should regard Lebanon as their home for now.
As for Aziza, she dreams of using what she has learned when she returns to Syria.
“I really hope I will improve my English skills,” she said.
“And I hope I can learn something I can use in my future work life hopefully in Syria.”