SIN AL-FIL, Lebanon: Classes at Lazar Najarian-Calouste Gulbenkian School in Aleppo are still being held despite being frequently suspended due to the violence in Syria.
The school, which has graduated thousands of students since 1954, might see many of its students graduate from Lebanese schools instead as battles engulf the city.
The institution’s high school, built in the city’s Azizieh neighborhood in honor of Armenian businessman and philanthropist Calouste Gulbenkian, has many students fleeing to Armenian communities around the world as the violence in Syria rages.
The school in Aleppo was among many that were built to accommodate the academic needs of a growing population of ethnic Armenians, whose ancestors had survived the Armenian Genocide less than half a century earlier.
As the schools face an uncertain future in war-torn Syria, hundreds of Armenian students are enrolling in Armenian schools in Lebanon while maintaining hope that they will attend college back home despite the continuing violence.
“Returning to Syria is on the mind of most of our students from Syria,” said Ara Vassilian, the general director of schools affiliated with the Armenian General Benevolent Union.
Education costs for students coming from Syria to AGBU schools are covered in large part by the nonprofit organization, which relies heavily on donations made by philanthropists and the Armenian diaspora.
Based in New York, AGBU has donated $1.7 million in relief aid since the conflict began in order to help Syrian Armenian families exposed to the civil war.
An estimated 120,000 Armenians live in Syria with the majority centered in Aleppo. Like other Christian communities, they are worried that the ongoing war will permanently displace them.
Arina, a student in grade 11, said that her journey to Lebanon started while she was visiting her uncle last summer. “I would visit my uncle in Lebanon every summer with my family, but last year we came here and didn’t go back.
“I like it here, Lebanon is great but Damascus is my city,” she added.
With expectations that the fighting will continue to rage in Syria, Arina’s classmate wants to finish her high-school studies in Lebanon and attend college in Syria in the future.
“I want to go back to Syria, but after finishing school here,” said Sarine, a former student of Lazar Najarian-Calouste Gulbenkian School in Aleppo.
At three of AGBU’s schools in the Metn towns of Sin al-Fil and Dbayyeh, there are at least 100 Syrian Armenian students who have escaped the violence along with their families. More arrive each week while only a few trickle back, due to the expensive living conditions in Lebanon.
Many other students have enrolled in other Armenian schools across the country, but no official numbers have been announced yet, as the figure steadily rises.
Although hundreds of Syrian Armenians have fled the unrest and sought refuge in Armenia, many families have preferred to move to Lebanon and other countries with vibrant expat communities due to the wide availability of schools with a Western Armenian curriculum and the similarity of the education system to that in Syria.
Unlike Eastern Armenian, the official language of Armenia, the Syrian community speaks Western Armenian and Arabic, as in Lebanon – but here, many students say they have found it difficult to study most of their courses in English. “At my school in Syria, most of the classes were in Arabic, here they are in English,” said 16-year-old Arina.
Arina, who studied at the Looys (Light) School in Damascus, said that even though she faced difficulty in the beginning of the year, she has been gradually improving.
While Lebanon’s educational system offers science courses in either English or French, most of the courses in Syria are taught in Arabic, leaving English as a third language.
AGBU schools have been holding intensive English language classes on Saturdays since the beginning of the academic year to help Syrian students catch up.
“We are offering intensive English courses on Saturdays but all students are treated in the same manner ... Both Syrian and Lebanese students took the midyear exam and they will take the final year exam,” Vassilian added. “Depending on the occupancy in each classroom, we distribute the new students among the three schools.”
Some classes have filled up this year, forcing Vassilian’s administration to open new sections for the same grade. “This year’s ninth grade was full and we were forced to open another section to accommodate all the students.”
The schools have also dedicated weekly classes to discussions about major issues facing students in their day-to-day lives.
“We had bullying as a topic of discussion this year to help integrate Lebanese and Syrian students together,” Vassilian said, adding that there were only minor incidents of bullying directed at Armenian students arriving from Syria.
“The administration anticipated such problems and we warned against any intolerance toward Syrians from the very beginning,” he said.
Students of AGBU’s elementary school also look forward to going back to Syria in the near future.
“My school was attacked and I can’t go back there now,” said Ania, a fifth grader. “After the fighting reached where we lived in Aleppo Street in Damascus, my family decided to flee to Lebanon,” she added.
Another Syrian Armenian student from Damascus said that she was looking forward to seeing her country secure and stable in order for her family to return home. “The street we lived on was safe before, but growing fear and increased fighting made us leave our home and come to Beirut,” said Karny. “When everything is back to normal, I want to go back.”
The constant thought of return to Syria might distract Syrian students in their studies this year, but the majority remain optimistic and focused on their plans to return to attend college.
“I want to be a lawyer when I grow up,” Ania said.