BEIRUT: The newly elected U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi Wednesday toured an informal refugee shelter and a public school south of Beirut in his first official visit to Lebanon since taking office in Jan. 1. “What is the biggest problem here?” Grandi asked Ahmad, a refugee who lives in an old shopping mall turned collective shelter facing the Mosque of Bir Hasan. “The cold and the humidity,” the latter replied and pointed to the cloudy sky peaking through big holes in the ceiling, while water kept dropping from the walls non-stop.
Ahmad is one of 50 people renting one of the former shops as a home for him and his family, with only curtains separating his room from the other residents. “We are four people living in a 9-square-meter room, but we pay $200 per month,” Ahmad’s neighbor, Radia Ramadan told The Daily Star, while her two kids, 1 and 2 years old, and her 6-month old twin nephews crawled around the tiny room.
“What is UNHCR doing to improve living conditions in this shelter?” Grandi asked his colleagues during the visit, who informed him that the informal shelter had been chosen for rehabilitation works facilitated by UNHCR scheduled for the coming weeks.
“All the help we get in this shelter here comes from UNHCR,” Qamar Ramadan, 18, Radia’s younger sister told The Daily Star. “But to be honest, all I want is to be able to go back to class after being out of school for two years,” she added.
Qamar is one of many who were not able to continue high school due to financial problems and capacity obstacles in nearby schools.
UNHCR is working with the Education Ministry to create more places for school children through a “two shift” system. When public schools have reached full capacity, UNHCR coordinates a second “shift” of classes for Syrian refugees in the afternoon.
In September of last year, the Education Ministry launched a nationwide “Back to School” campaign to invite all parents to register their children in school with the support of $94 million through UNHCR, UNICEF, the World Bank and bilateral donors. Thanks to this system, the Ibtihaj Kadoura Intermediate Public School in Bir Hasan, which Grandi and a representative from the Education Ministry visited together, can provide an education for 600 Syrian refugee children.
“I am so proud of you all,” Grandi told a class of 12-year-olds after they explained photosynthesis to him in English. “The kids didn’t learn any English in Syria, so half of the time I try to speak to them in English,” said Nouha Yammout, one of the teachers at the school. In the morning she teaches Lebanese children in a private school nearby while in the afternoon she is part of the second shift schooling for Syrian students.
“Please encourage all your peers who are currently out of school to get registered,” Grandi said in one of the classrooms before ending his visit.
Accompanying Grandi on his tour was UNHCR Middle East Bureau Chief Amin Awad and Mireille Girard, the representative of UNHCR in Lebanon.
Grandi also visited Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk.
Grandi, formerly the head of UNRWA, Friday will also visit an informal settlement in Saadnayel in the Bekaa valley to speak to refugees and refugee outreach volunteers. He will then hold a news conference at the end of his tour to elaborate on his visit to Lebanon.