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Jesuit Refugee Service students at a graduation ceremony in Kafr Zabad, Lebanon. JRS educates many of the school-aged Syrian refugee children living in Lebanon. (Photo Credit: Jesuit Refugee Service)

(Beirut) 22 August 2018 — Gharam is a 14-year-old girl who fled to Lebanon from Syria with her family to escape her country’s longstanding civil war. She longs to one day return home. But in the meantime, a Jesuit Refugee Service school she attends in her host country has been a welcoming oasis in an otherwise turbulent world.

“When I miss a day of school, I feel like life has returned and closed the doors,” said Gharam, who lives in Jbeil, a district in northeast Lebanon where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live. “When I return to school I feel like I have returned to life because that’s where the teachers and friends are who helped me forget my sadness and anger from the war, as if I’m in another world that is beautiful and wonderful.”

In the 2013-14 academic year, Lebanon opened the first of its “second-shift” schools, which used existing public school structures to offer instruction time for refugees in the afternoon, while Lebanese students attended school in the “first-shift,” or morning. Three-hundred and fifty “second-shift” schools have been opened to accommodate refugee students and over 221,600 refugee children are currently registered in Lebanese public schools. Syrian refugee children, like Graham, often find it difficult to assimilate in the public schools as they face challenges such as foreign languages barriers, discrimination, bullying, social and economic issues, and unpredictable enrolment regulations. 

So in response, Jesuit Refugee Service offers extensive education and language training programs in Jbeil and in Kafr Zabad – two areas in Lebanon with high concentrations of Syrian refugees – to help refugee children prepare for Lebanese public schools. Despite the program’s progress with enrollment, there is an increasingly high demand for classes and a waiting list of potential students eager to enroll.

“I was expecting (the JRS program) would be like other schools where they treat students aggressively and hit and abuse them,” Gharam said. “But I felt comfortable and adapted quickly, and I started to feel a change in my life in the way I treated other people with respect and tolerance and love, and a change in the level of my education.”

All of the more than 170 JRS students in Jbeil and in Kafr Zabad who took placement tests for the Lebanese school system earned passing grades. But with classroom space tight, it’s uncertain how many children will have the opportunity to attend regular public schools. Additionally, the increasingly desperate living conditions of refugee families have created stressful home environments that threaten to undermine their children’s education, with some children dropping out of school so they can work to support their family. So JRS added social workers to its educational programs in 2015. Absentee and dropout rates since have dropped significantly. 

In addition to education needs, JRS also routinely provides refugee families with food baskets, hygiene products and items to help them cope with winter, such as blankets, heaters, drapes, and carpet. JRS students in Lebanon say they’re grateful for the opportunity to continue their studies but can’t wait to one day return to their home country. 

“JRS changed my whole life,” wrote Nour Sawan, 14, a JRS student in Kafr Zabad. “The most beautiful thing in my school is my special teachers. They illuminate my future and guide me and encourage me to continue my studies and to be a special person in the community. (But) I miss my home in Syria and my relatives and my friends. I wish to go back to Syria and realize my dream, which is to become a famous fashion designer.” Mahdi Al Hussein, a 15-year-old JRS student in Kafr Zabad, wanted to be a doctor as a young child in Syria. Now, another profession has caught his interest. “I hope to become a pilot in the future to go away from the discrimination and bigotry in this world,” he wrote. “I hope that peace return(s) to Syria, my lovely country.”

We invite you to learn more about refugee education, share stories of why refugee education is so important, and give the gift of education through our online Global Education Initiative Gift Catalog. You can purchase items like a new pair of school shoes for a refugee child for $25 or provide a whole classroom with textbooks for $100. With your support, we can give more students a seat in the classroom. 

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