AWKAR, Lebanon: Rami Kamal Dib and Jinane Hassan had a simple goal: to hone their English language skills. Since joining the English Access Microscholarship Program, however, the teenagers have learned as much about their fellow Lebanese citizens as they have about English verb conjugations. “We met other people, and now I know more about other societies in Lebanon,” Dib said. “I know more about other religions, other people.”
Sponsored by the U.S. State Department, Access aims to help young people from economically disadvantaged areas in Lebanon learn English and leadership skills, but it has also helped to break down barriers between communities, regions and sects by connecting young people from across the country.
“It was a great opportunity to socialize [with people from other regions], because we don’t get do it at our school ... It opened our views,” said Hassan, who comes from the Chouf.
“We got the chance to meet new people and learn more about them. They’re not monsters. ... We can be friends,” he said.
Ghalia Kondacji, a native of south Lebanon who has taught English to promising Lebanese public school students for the past decade, said that encouraging diversity was a key aspect of the Access program.
“It offers youth from all over Lebanon the chance to meet, which we just don’t see,” she said.
“They wouldn’t have had the opportunity otherwise.”
Kondacji described the students as “cautious” when they met peers from different parts of the country for the first time, “but by the end of the workshop they became friends, because they have so many things in common between them. ... In the end, they found out that the distance between them was an illusion.”
“It’s one of the only places where students aren’t asked about their sect,” added Taghrid Abu Haikal, another Access teacher.
“It’s kind of a break for them from the Lebanese situation.”
At a luncheon celebrating the 10th anniversary of Access Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon David Hale praised students for working together toward common goals.
“We know that Lebanon faces many challenges. But every day I am inspired by the hope displayed by the young people of this country. You are the source of that inspiration,” Hale told over 50 students gathered for the event at his residence at the U.S. Embassy compound.
While the 3,800 Lebanese students who have participated in Access may represent a new, hopeful generation, educators and community leaders said it was initially difficult to convince parents to allow their children to participate.
The program’s cultural aspect, which aims to teach students about “American values, traditions, government and society,” was a particular sticking point.
“We tried our best to convince them [the parents], especially about the activities,” said Sheikh Sami Abilmona, the secretary-general of the IRFAN schools in Lebanon that has helped to implement Access.
“They wanted to know more about the activities. ‘Is this a political thing?’ they asked.”
“But we have to help and support our students improve their English. It is the first argument we can use to convince the parents, who know that English is important if their children want to go to university and continue their education.”
However, attitudes have changed over the past 10 years, Kondacji said.
“When Access first started, people had difficulty accepting it. ‘Why should I send my son or my daughter to learn about American history, culture and events,’ they would say. But now I see parents encouraging their children.”