Conflict - 'These kids have nothing. They come here to forget'

13th December 2013 at 00:00
Crowdsourced cash keeps school for Syrian refugees from closing

The clouds in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa region may be darkening as the winter storms set in, but Ahmed Saab shows few signs of negativity.

Gesticulating widely, he swings open a door to a room full of smiling children, who promptly stand to greet their headteacher. "These are the second years," he says, eliciting a sharp communal rebuke. "Sorry, third years," he laughs.

The leader of the informally named Syrian School of Baalbek has a new spring in his step. Only a few months ago, he had been resigned to losing the institution he founded and that for a year had provided 200 refugee children with their only education. Now an innovative campaign - which crowdsourced the school's first proper funding - has given him and his students fresh hope.

The story goes back 18 months to when Mr Saab, a newly arrived refugee who had been a headteacher in the central Syrian city of Homs, first noticed dozens of aimless young Syrian refugees on Baalbek's streets. He started to ask the children why they were not in school.

The most common answer was that there was simply no space. Lebanon, a country of little over 4 million citizens, is now home to more than 800,000 registered Syrians who have fled the country's vicious civil war. Although nearly 100,000 school-age refugees have been admitted to public schools this year, more than double that number have not. Capacity has been reached and United Nations refugee agency the UNHCR admits that there are now "more children who are eager to enrol in school than we can accommodate".

Mr Saab also found that many had registered in schools but dropped out. Mostly this was owing to language: in Syria the curriculum is taught exclusively in Arabic, whereas in neighbouring Lebanon a mixture of French, English and Arabic is used. Older children in particular found that they could not adjust; racism and even violence against refugees were common.

So Mr Saab decided to form one of the country's first schools teaching the Syrian curriculum. "The (Syrian) students in the government schools are not succeeding, they are not learning," Mr Saab tells TES.

Along with members of the local Syrian community, he raised a small amount of money to rent the premises of another school between 2.30pm and 5pm and found some teachers, promising to pay them as soon as the school got funding.

But that day never came. The UN and most charitable organisations only provide aid to Lebanon's state schools, and numerous funding applications were turned down, with the school's decision to teach the Syrian curriculum often cited as a reason. The school was, Mr Saab says, offered money by various Syrian opposition groups, including Islamic associations, but refused to accept this because it did not want to be seen as political. "We are not with the (Syrian) regime or the opposition - we are on our own," he says. "We do things purely for the kids. These kids have nothing, they just come to school to laugh and forget their lives."

In the end, the school's lack of political allegiances meant that Mr Saab couldn't make it work, so he told the teachers they were free to leave. Remarkably, they all continued to work without wages for another six months, determined to help the children complete the year.

As the Syrian government's border controls became more stringent, they were even forced to smuggle education books from their homeland. Despite dozens of children suffering from psychological issues, including many orphaned by the war, the academic year ended with more than 90 per cent of students passing exams.

When September rolled around this year and there was still no funding, it seemed again that the school would have to close. But the situation came to the attention of Venetia Rainey, a journalist at a Lebanese newspaper. With a colleague, she set up a page on crowdfunding website Indiegogo, calling it "Keep 200 Syrian refugee children in school".

They realised that the sum raised needed to be big just to pay the $300 (pound;180) monthly salaries of the teachers (still considerably less than Lebanon's minimum wage of $450). "We decided to go for two months' wages: $7,500," Ms Rainey says. "It suddenly seemed enormous and I was terrified that we weren't going to make it."

What started as a trickle soon became a stream as donations poured in, ranging from $5 to $2,000. In the end, the campaign raised more than $12,000. "That is the power of social media. I had people tweeting at me `Your project has reached South Carolina'," Ms Rainey adds.

The school reopened this academic year, only a few weeks late, with the vast majority of students returning.

Hoda Shmalie, a young teacher from Damascus, was in the third year of a five-year computer engineering degree when the war started, forcing her to flee. She has since given up hope of completing her studies but insists that, even when she wasn't being paid, she was happy just teaching the children science.

"Some of my students have seen their parents die in front of them - how can I complain about my life?" she says. "Some of the children are living in camps, and with the winter coming their conditions are going to be unbearable. It's a tragedy. But then you see them here, laughing and enjoying themselves, and it is worth it."

Mohammed, a reticent 12-year-old, is happy in the school. "I love it here: all my friends are here and I really like the plays." By plays, Mohammed means play-acting, something the school organises every week to explore issues including the civil war.

The money raised so far will enable Mr Saab to pay his staff until March, at which point he will again face an unenviable choice. "I am incredibly proud and so overwhelmed by the support," Ms Rainey says. "But although it is an amazing thing to have done, it is a school and education funding needs to be long-term. It gives the school some breathing time and, fingers crossed, we will find something bigger, better and longer."

Send a message to Syrian refugees

TES is working with Oxfam to launch a new campaign. As well as encouraging donations to Oxfam's Syria Christmas appeal, we are asking students to write and draw messages for Syrian children in refugee camps in Jordan and temporary accommodation in Lebanon.

The pictures should be sent to TES by 20 December; they can be emailed to or shared via social media using the hashtag #HelloSyria. For more information, please go to www.tesconnect.comsyria.


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