Lebanon News

‘The school is ready, we just need a little money’

File - Syrian school principle Ahmad Saab show a backpack in Baalbek, Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2013. (The Daily Star/Brooke Anderson)

BAALBEK, Lebanon: The Syrian students and the teachers are raring to start the school year. They have classrooms and desks, textbooks and supplies – even fresh backpacks.

The only thing missing is money to pay the teachers.“Everything is ready – the school, the books, the students. We just need salaries to keep going,” says Ahmad Saab, a Syrian refugee and the principal of a grade school for Syrian children that completed its first academic year last June.

“We have 12 teachers, and they need $250 to $300 a month – just enough to pay their rent.”

The school has become a rare success story, bucking the high dropout trend among young Syrian refugees by retaining all of its students. But after a year of working without salaries, the teachers and administration say that they can’t go on any longer.

The school in Baalbek is run and staffed entirely by volunteers. It opened last school year to give 145 refugees grades 5-12 the opportunity to get the type of education they would be getting back home after many Syrian students had difficulty integrating into the Lebanese system.

Of the 270,000 school-aged Syrian refugees who are registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, only 20,000 are enrolled in Lebanese public schools.

“Eighty-five percent of Syrian kids are on the street or staying at home,” says Mouna Maasarani, a French teacher at the school from Homs.

“I’ve even seen kids as young as 11 on the street working to support their parents. They should be in school,” added who has been volunteering her skills Maasarani, who hopes to keep working once she has a salary.

Last academic year was already a tall task for the school. The small administration managed to find a local school to rent classrooms from at the cost of $2,500 a month – paid by three local philanthropists – which they could use them between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. after the school’s own students had finished for the day.

With the school facilities as their only support, the staff taught the children using photocopies of battered old Syrian textbooks covering math, science, history, geography, English and French.

They also included texts from both ancient and modern Arabic writers such as Nizar Qabbani, Ahmed Shawki, May Ziade, Ghada al-Samman, Zuhair bin Abi Salma and Ibn Khaldun.

They bought school supplies from their own scarce pocket money, and both staff and students commuted up to an hour by foot in all weather conditions to work in the poorly heated building.

Yet the vast majority of students – over 90 percent – successfully passed to the next grades. They sent the final-year exams to a relatively safe area of Syria where officials at the Education Ministry approved the results.

Now, Saab says, there are even more Syrian students – around 200 – wanting to enroll at their school.

At his rented apartment surrounded by boarded-up buildings on a hill in an old quarter of Baalbek, Saab shows off boxes of 100 backpacks for his students that he has bought with a loan of $800, a sign of his dedication to educating Syria’s young exiles.

But with this year looking to be even more challenging, they may never reach the backs they were intended for.

The philanthropists who were paying the school’s rent have diverted their money to help fund a newly opened Syrian school in the Western Bekaa, one of approximately 10 Syrian-run schools for compatriot refugees operating across Lebanon.

In light of this, Al-Abrar Institute, which has been hosting the Syrian school, has agreed to allow the Syrians to use their facilities for free this academic year, although the staff fears that if they don’t start classes soon they might change their mind.

Their concerns may be justified, as the continuous arrival of Syrians in Lebanon, most to stay indefinitely in impoverished areas where services for Lebanese are already scarce, often leads to tensions between the refugees and the host communities.

Funding from aid agencies is unlikely to be forthcoming, as many already lack sufficient funds for even emergency relief.

The UNHCR revised its fifth interagency appeal in June to state that they needed $1.7 billion to last them through to the end of the year, but only about 32 percent of that is projected to come through, choking the vital work done by the Lebanese government and various aid agencies to assist Syrian refugees.

UNHCR estimates that the number of registered Syrian school-aged children will have reached 330,000 by the end of this year, surpassing the 300,000 Lebanese pupils in public schools.

When Thomas Davis, an American who teaches finance in Abu Dhabi, heard about the Syrian school in Baalbek, he got in contact, hoping to volunteer as a math and history teacher for one year.

He says alongside wanting to help give kids a basic education that would help them later in life, he also wants to repay the Syrian hospitality he had experienced as a tourist when he visited two-and-a-half years ago.

“I visited Syria in April 2011 – arriving from Baalbek actually. The bus from the border dropped me off at the outskirts of Homs, and when I got in a taxi to go to the Homs bus terminal, the cab driver was so excited to have an American customer that he pulled over and bought me a cappuccino,” he recalls.

“I visited several cities in Syria, and this was the kind of hospitality I experienced everywhere ... I see an education project for Syrian refugees as a way to connect with the Syrian community.” Davis adds: “Everyone is aware of the importance of education, but the priorities of housing, food, and medical services end up getting most of the funding when it comes to a refugee situation.

“Meanwhile, children and youth stagnate, with very few opportunities for meaningful intellectual stimulation and social interaction. An education program – whatever the content – allows youth to experience engagement and personal growth.”

If the Syrian school in Baalbek doesn’t open soon, he is also looking for volunteer opportunities in Turkey and other parts of Lebanon.

But for the Syrian community in Baalbek, for whom this is their only school, the options are much more limited – and time is not on their side.

“The more time that goes by without school, the more problems kids will have,” Maasarani says. Without at least basic education, the teacher adds, “We’ll have an ignorant generation.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 23, 2013, on page 4.




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