BEIRUT: In Syria, Muayid dreamed of becoming an international lawyer, but now the 16-year old says the bullying he faces at school in Lebanon is so bad he hopes to drop out at the end of this year.
“We’re outcasts here,” he tells The Daily Star. “Even the teachers don’t address us in class; it’s like we’re just sitting there. Sometimes they get mad at us, but they don’t get mad at the Lebanese students.”
His brother, Muqtadi, 13, agrees.
“I don’t have friends – no one wants to hang out with me,” he says. “Even when I answer a question, for example, in Arabic class, they all laugh at me ... They make fun of Syria and they tell on us a lot too.”
Muayid and Muqtadi, along with their parents and four siblings, fled Deraa in southeast Syria about six months ago and settled in the impoverished Beirut suburb of Nabaa, where many Syrian families struggle to pay the ever-rising rents. Their mother, Fatima, says they survive on yogurt and bread in order to afford to educate their five school-aged children, who all attend different schools.
Some 32,000 Syrian children are registered in public schools across the country, according to the Education Ministry, with thousands more attending private or semi-private institutions.
Education policy is set by the ministry, which consults with the United Nations Higher Council for Refugees and other advocacy groups when it comes to addressing the needs of Syrian refugee families.
With UNHCR encouragement, the ministry extended the registration deadline for Lebanese schools this year and passed several other measures in order to allow the maximum number of Syrian children to register. The ministry later announced that it would also cover textbook fees.
But when it comes to assessing needs and providing support to families and schools, the UNHCR is limited by the fact that just 155,000 out of over 220,000 refugees have been registered so far. Smaller, local aid organizations are providing ad-hoc assistance where possible, but Lebanon’s public education system was severely strained even before the war in Syria, and many schools claim they are already over capacity. Many Syrians have turned to private schools, which are more expensive and are free to set some of their own admission policies.
Hind, another mother living in Nabaa, says she only managed to get two of her three children into one private school on the condition she also work at the school as a cleaner.
“At the school where I work, they are very good to my son and daughter, but I have another son, and no one would take him because he’s 11 and they said he’s too old, there’s no room, and also he doesn’t know French,” she says. “Now he’s at home all day, and tomorrow I fear he’ll grow up and won’t know how to read.”
For those who do manage to secure a place, the bullying and prejudice of students and teachers alike leave many Syrians like Muayid and Muqtadi dreading the school bell.
The intimidation is made worse by the adjustment issues many Syrian children face with the new curriculum. In Lebanon, math and science are taught in either French or English, and Syrians often have trouble keeping up with their Lebanese classmates who have been taught at least two languages since kindergarten.
Another new and upsetting phenomenon for children coming from Syria is the sectarian division they find among their peers, something Fatima says they never experienced back home.
“The Muslims are nice to them but the Christians are not, and this bothers them,” Fatima says.
Bullying in schools is nothing new, especially among children of a certain age. But many students say they also face prejudice from the teachers and administrators who should be supporting them. Muayid and his mother say that despite the Education Ministry’s edict waiving textbook fees for students this year, the school’s administration gave out the books to Lebanese students but insisted the Syrians pay for them.
“And the books were supposed to be for us!” says Muayid, a look of incredulous hurt on his face. “They act like they’re kings and Syrians are garbage. The teachers don’t care about us.”
Even the efforts of a few good teachers cannot overcome the entrenched problems of an overwhelmed education system.
Ghosn al-Ban, Muayid and Muqtadi’s 14-year-old sister, says her French teacher gives her extra attention and encouragement, but she still finds herself lost in math class. Other teachers have not been as kind.
“One teacher told me I was not allowed to complain to the principal about anything, and she yelled at me in front of the whole class,” she says.
Her mother Fatima rushes to add that she does not judge all Lebanese based on a few bad interactions.
“We know not all Lebanese are like this,” she says. “We just want [the teachers] to take an interest.”
Ruba Khoury, the country director for Save the Children, says her organization and others have been working together with the Education Ministry and UNHCR to expand education opportunities for Syrian children. But the huge influx of Syrians, many of whom are geographically scattered and not registered with the U.N., makes monitoring and support difficult.
Some organizations, like Save the Children, have started offering remedial classes or intensive courses to help Syrian students adjust, in addition to dispatching social workers who can function as liaisons between students, families and schools.
But addressing the culture of bullying and sectarianism in schools is difficult and will take time, warns Khoury.
“These are all measures to reduce, but I cannot say the bullying will not exist anymore,” she explains. “There is already a load on the public schools in terms of staffing and resources, so we need to look at not only how to criticize but how to support them by ensuring they have the capacity to handle this crisis.”