Sitting in a busy classroom beside an open window, the warm breeze blows against my face. Traffic crawls past on the street below, car horns sounding periodically as another inconsiderate driver pulls out spontaneously in front of an unsuspecting victim. The scene: downtown Beirut in Lebanon.
But there are other sounds in this classroom. Excited children laughing, giggling and calling out in Arabic. The teacher scribbling on the blackboard and trying to settle the room.
The makeshift school, consisting of three classrooms on the second floor above a bank, runs a morning and an afternoon learning session for Syrian refugee children who have fled their homes seeking safety in Lebanon. One hundred and twenty excited children cram in to the tiny school each day to learn Arabic, English, maths and science. The school is funded by the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) Australia.
The brightly painted rooms create a positive vibe and the kids are buzzing with energy. It seems a long way from the trauma of Syria. These children are some of the millions of refugees whose plight has recently been highlighted with worldwide media coverage following the tragic photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi found washed up on a beach in Turkey. The civil war raging in their country for the past five years has completely turned their lives upside down, with one in every two Syrians displaced.
People like Fatima, a mother of four children—three girls and a boy—who were living in Aleppo in northern Syria when the fighting forced them to flee. Initially, Fatima thought they would be able to return after one or two months. But two years later they are still stuck in a small room in crowded Beirut staring into an uncertain future.
“It's not easy for us,” Fatima says. “It’s so expensive and work for my husband is not so good. All the time I’m trying to find a way to pay for rent.
“He is a tailor but this kind of work is so hard to find in Lebanon. He can’t find a factory in which to work; he just works by himself—a little time here, a little time there."
The United Nations World Food Programme recently cut its assistance to Syrian refugees in Lebanon due to funding shortfalls. Some now receive nothing at all, while others get just $US14 each month.
“So everyone now waits to see whether they will receive assistance for food. I don’t know if they will give us food for the next month or not,” Fatima says.
But she smiles when she tells me how the school has transformed the lives of her two children old enough to attend.
“My children used to sleep all day but now they bounce out of bed before dawn—they are so excited to go to school and learn!”
In September the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced that 700,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey were not attending school. An entire generation is at risk of missing out on an education. And while this school is a small drop in a big bucket, it’s life-changing for Fatima’s children and many others.
The amazing thing is that every child I spoke to at the school said they wanted to become either a teacher or a doctor. Why? Because they wanted to shine their light to help others. These are kids with an incredible heart for service and a desire to pay forward the opportunities they have received.