TRIPOLI, Lebanon: On a crowded Tripoli street in the middle of a weekday, boys from Aleppo peddle chewing gum and candy, having escaped the crisis at home only to plunge into a new one in Lebanon.
They are among thousands of Syrian refugee children who have dropped out of school due to their parents’ lack of money, unfamiliarity with the Lebanese educational system, or simply the belief – against all odds – that they will soon return home.
“We left school when we left Syria,” says Mohammad, who claims he’s 15 but looks much younger. In the midst of a midday traffic jam, he holds a basket full of candy, which he says he needs to empty by the end of the day or he will be beaten with a belt by his father. “I loved school in Aleppo, and I was good at it. I used to write a lot.”
He now lives with his family in Tripoli’s destitute neighborhood of Bab al-Tabbaneh, the scene of sporadic flare-ups between the area’s largely Sunni opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the majority Alawite pro-Assad population of the adjacent Jabal Mohsen – hardly a respite from the violence he and his family fled a year ago.
There are currently nearly 9,500 Syrian refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in north Lebanon, with the agency estimating that up to 3,000 more are living in the Tripoli area.
The UNHCR is currently providing over 300 children with remedial classes with the help of Save the Children Sweden, and over 450 children have been enrolled in Lebanese public schools, according to the U.N. body’s latest report.
Many of those in Tripoli and its environs are school-aged children who want to study but are faced with a different curriculum and abject poverty, often having left Syria with little more than the clothes on their backs.
As a result, some families have begun home-schooling their children, while others have sent them to work at whatever odd jobs they can find. With the father often still in Syria, the onus of supporting the family falls on the eldest son – who is sometimes still a child.
“Most refugees that we take care of are women and children,” says Samir al-Kousser, who helps Syrian refugees through an Islamic charity in Kalmoun, which lies on the outskirts of Tripoli. “Children work to help buy their families basic things.”
He says that most of the children he’s worked with are not registered in schools. But the tight-knit community of Syrian refugees in Kalmoun, most of whom hail from the Homs area, has made the situation somewhat bearable.
Mazen Taleb, who works for the municipality in Tripoli and helps Syrian refugees during workdays as well as during his time off, says the situation in the city proper is far more dire. New arrivals scramble for housing and odd jobs – both of which are in short supply, as locals can attest.
“In the north, without the refugees we’re already in a crisis. There is so much poverty and the local government is broken,” Taleb laments. “In some neighborhoods, there are more Syrians than Lebanese or Palestinians. We feel for them, but our resources here are limited.”
Taleb, along with other local aid workers, believes that the best way to ease the economic burden on the north and meet the needs of the refugees – including education – is to create refugee camps similar to those in Turkey. But so far, the idea has been rejected by the Lebanese government.
“If we had something like what they have in Turkey, that would help a lot,” says Sheikh Mazen, an imam in Bab al-Tabbaneh who has been providing aid to Syrian refugees since the unrest began last March.
“Only 10 percent of the families I’ve helped have registered their children in schools,” he says. “At a camp, they could use the Syrian curriculum or they could have programs that would acclimate them to the Lebanese one.”
Of the 20 school-aged children that The Daily Star met on a two-day visit to Tripoli, none were registered in schools and just one was being homeschooled – but the only subject she is studying is the Quran.
Some families of schoolchildren who stay home without studying during the day say they haven’t enrolled their kids in school because they no longer have their schools’ paperwork from Syria, lack the financial means to enroll them, or are worried about their safety.
If things continue as they are, with no social or educational programs for Syrian schoolchildren, Sheikh Mazen worries that the north of Lebanon, already mired in poverty, will become host to a generation of Syrian youths with nothing to do during the day but perform occasional menial labor and attend demonstrations.
He recalls one 9-year-old boy who went to work at a barber shop because his father couldn’t find employment in Lebanon. But every day he wanted to leave work, convinced that if he just demonstrated enough, he would bring down the Assad government.
In another case, the sheikh says a family pushed their 16-year-old son to find work, after he’d served time in a Syrian jail. The factory job he landed, with its long hours and cramped housing, proved too claustrophobic for the teenager. He left after a week, telling his parents, “I escaped from a prison, and now I’m living in another prison.”
Local aid workers see the situation deteriorating by the day, with more Syrians on the streets of Tripoli and no jobs or schools to meet their needs.