Syrian refugee children often cannot go to school. Jesuit Refugee Service is working to remove obstacles to education for them. (Sarah Teather — Jesuit Refugee Service)
(Beirut) July 22, 2015 — We stepped over puddles of water and bundles of wires as we climbed the stairs to the apartment. It was typical of the ramshackle buildings in the poorer districts of Beirut that now house so many of Lebanon's 1.5 million Syrian refugees.
"Ramadan Kareem! Is your mum there? Can we come in?" ventured the Jesuit Refugee Service home visits leader in Arabic. Another young head poked out from behind the doorway, then another, and a broad smile. "Mahaba! Ahlan wa sahlan!" [Hello, welcome!] More children, many smiles. "You are welcome!" said the mother, kissing me — a total stranger — and ushering us into their home.
We filed through a narrow dark kitchen and into a very bare living room at the back. As we sat down on the floor, I was conscious that we were a large group to arrive uninvited into a small home, even more so in the Ramadan holiday month during Beirut's long hot days.
In addition to the usual Syrian members of the home visits team, that day we included a French volunteer, a young Lebanese member of our country office, and me, a Brit visiting from the International office.
But even while I was still pondering the size of our own group, the room began to fill with children: boys and girls, toddlers through to early teens, pony tails, colored headscarves, short, tall, dark-haired, fair-haired. Twenty four people in all — three families, multiple adults and children, all squashed in to a tiny third floor apartment just off a busy street.
It was an unusual home — not so for much the number of people in the space — families cohabiting and extreme overcrowding is common as refugees in Lebanon are forced to come together to afford rent. No, what was unusual about this home was that all the school-age children were in school. Four hundred thousand Syrian children are out of school in Lebanon. Transport costs, difficulty registering, discrimination in the Lebanese system, and the need for children to work to help pay the family bills, all combine to keep many children locked out of education.
By contrast, all of these children, now seated on the floor with us, were spilling over in enthusiasm to show us what they had learned. "One, two, three, four..." The children began to count in English in unison, spontaneously, without anyone seeming to take a lead. "Un, deux, trois, quatre..." they continued to murmurs of approval from our French volunteer.
"What is your name?" asked an older girl to me in carefully pronounced English. "How old are you?" she said again. "Forty-one," I said. "Have you learned to count that high?" "He can count to 100!" answered a mother in Arabic. She gestured to one of her young sons to get up from the crowd of children and stand at the front to show us what else he could do. He began to recite his alphabet.
It was like a graduation ceremony. A huge celebration. There were claps and cheers and smiles and laughs. The energy in the room was palpable.
I had been so busy looking at the children that I did not notice their mother at first. When I finally glanced at her again, I realized that she was crying. "I'm sorry," she said, wiping her face on her sleeve. "It makes me so happy. It makes me so happy to see them do this. They learn quickly. It has been just four months. Four months at school and look what they can do!"
We saw many tears on our home visits that week. Hers were the only tears we saw of happiness.
By Sarah Teather
Jesuit Refugee Service Advocacy Consultant