BEIRUT: With their hands held high, the kids jump out of their seats, eager to answer the teacher’s questions. When the most animated student gives the correct answer, the class erupts in applause before the students settle down again, determined to be the next one chosen to go up to the blackboard.
Looking at this classroom energy – typically reserved for recess or weekends – one would think that this is the most exciting school in the world, and for the Syrian children sitting in the sixth-floor classroom of the Omar Zeinne public school in Tariq al-Jadideh, it just might be.
They are part of more than 27,000 Syrian school-aged children benefitting from a new afternoon shift in almost 80 Lebanese public schools that began in January, a system designed to capitalize on the classrooms across the country that lie empty after normal school hours finish around 2 p.m. For many Syrian children, it is an opportunity to sink once more into the education, structure and camaraderie they had lacked for the past couple of years.
“I felt like something was missing, and I got it back,” 11-year-old Ala Baynouni says, during the afternoon shift’s 25-minute break.
She arrived in Lebanon with her family from the northern Syrian city of Aleppo a year and a half ago. It was a Lebanese neighbor who told her family about the second-shift program for Syrian students – an opportunity she couldn’t pass up.
“I was afraid at first because I heard the Lebanese curriculum was hard,” she says. “But then I started and it was good.”
Her friend, 12-year-old Soujoud Barakat, whose family fled the southwestern Syria city of Deraa, adds, “Before I felt like the days were long. Here I feel like time is going by quickly.”
The new initiative is being rolled out by Education Ministry in coordination with UNHCR after a successful pilot study last academic year in Arsal and some unofficial test second-shift programs in rural areas.
The Syrian conflict, now in its fourth year, has created more than 1 million child refugees throughout the region, including more than 300,000 school-aged children registered with the UNHCR in Lebanon. Although around 63,000 Syrian children have also been registered in the normal, first shift of public schools, that still leaves two-thirds of the child refugees without formal education this academic year.
At the Omar Zeinne school, the morning sessions accommodate 400 Syrian students in addition to 200 Lebanese. The afternoon shift, which runs from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., has 350 students – all Syrian.
The children don’t seem to mind the condensed afternoon hours, the new Lebanese curriculum or the fact that most of them are now repeating at least one grade to make up for lost time. Even before arriving in Lebanon, many of them had dropped out of school in Syria after frequent explosions and kidnappings made it too dangerous for them to leave the house to attend class.
These children are now attending school with a seriousness of purpose that belies their tender ages.
On a visit to the principal’s office during recess, a group of six students (five girls and one boy) – including Baynouni – are quick to share their career goals. Three want to be pediatricians and two want to be structural engineers, a promising sign for the eventual rebuilding needed in their war-torn home country. One girl, 14-year-old Walaa Baynouni, is silent.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” the school’s principal, Neamat Natour, asks her.
After a bit of coaxing, she finally replies, “I want to be an artist.”
Neamat, whose office is filled with colorful artwork by her Lebanese students, shakes her head.
“It’s a shame we don’t have art classes for the Syrian students. We only have the essential courses – no art, sports, music or French.”
Neamat is proud of what the students and school have achieved under such difficult circumstances, but she is also well aware of the creative and playful childhood the children are missing.
Perhaps this is why she feels a special sense of protection for her Syrian students. She regularly stops by their classrooms to check on their progress and encourage them and to prevent older Lebanese students bullying younger Syrian kids.
She has even created a safe place behind a gate for the afternoon shift students to stand as they swap over with the morning shift kids. She doesn’t blame this sort of behavior on the Lebanese, suggesting they are likely just jealous of the special attention being given to the Syrian students.
She has also organized seminars, held by non-governmental organizations, for the families of the refugee children on the subject of on domestic violence, a increasingly common occurrence in Syrian households as the effect of poverty, unemployment and exile takes hold.
The school has also organized lessons on hygiene, which she says has become an important issue due to the number of refugee children living in cramped, substandard housing.
Many of the Syrian students arrive at school wearing oversized, frayed clothes, but while they may lack the luxury of being able to take pride in their appearance, the youths are instead striving to prove themselves in their academic performance.
For Natour, the chance to educate the next generation of Syrians was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up – even though it means working 12-hour days.
“I wanted to do something to help, and the opportunity came along,” she says.