The day my life changed - The bombs were falling, but I was determined the children should go on learning

24th December 2010 at 00:00

I didn't tell my parents when I went to Lebanon in 2006. After all, the conflict was on the front pages every day. How could I tell my parents: "Oh yeah, I'm going to Beirut"?

I trained as a teacher in 1989, and then spent four years at a primary school in east London. At that time, I started to think a lot about the plight of teachers and children in the poorer parts of the world. How can poor countries develop and progress without good-quality teacher training?

I wanted to find out more, so I went to Belize with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). Then I came back and taught again in east London. But I felt I had a real mission, so I left to put my skills to use at Save the Children UK.

In the summer of 2006, conflict broke out between Israel and Lebanon. There were rocket attacks by both sides, and a lot of destruction. Save the Children UK was horrified by the situation for young children and sent an emergency-response team to Beirut. I went with them.

Beirut was a beautiful city. Of course, there was terrible destruction, but you could still see the beauty. But it didn't have the buzz and activity you would normally see: there was an uncomfortable silence about the city. Then, at four or five in the morning, you would hear the bombs, and that would shake you.

I had to do a little bit of internal campaigning among my colleagues. Yes, people needed water. Yes, they needed safe shelter, food, buckets to wash in. But I believed they also needed us to make sure that children went to school, to make sure the disruption to education was minimal.

In the areas around Beirut, it wasn't safe for children to go to formal school. But it was still possible to provide shelter and education of some sort: a safe place for them to play, reading materials - the things children do, despite political unrest. In a camp where thousands of people were displaced, children still picked up books, still used recreational materials, still talked to their peers.

A lot of children had fled from the south, under rocket attack. They had to leave their homes, their lives, everything, without any warning or preparation.

I met a four-year-old boy whose mother said he used to be the most talkative and lively of her children. Then he stopped speaking. The whole time I was there, he didn't say a word. He had seen calamity, destruction and violence all around him.

I was humbled by the hospitality of the people in Beirut. One man said: "I haven't got much money, but if you need me to buy supplies for the children, or games, or the smallest thing, I'll go to the market for you." The man's home had been destroyed by shelling, but he was willing to spend the little he had to make sure the children were safe.

Our office was on the sixth floor, and one day a bomb fell uncomfortably close. There was a level of adrenaline that I haven't felt any other time in my life. I immediately felt: I've got to get out of this building. It sounds dramatic to say that I was afraid for my life, but I was aware that I had to act quickly.

Save the Children UK decided to withdraw us and we went across the border to Syria. It was a six-hour journey and the whole way I thought: "This is so wrong." I didn't want to leave without achieving the objectives we were there for. I wanted to make sure that children who were traumatised had the support they needed.

Education does so much more than teach children to read and write. Going to school has so many benefits. When everything around you has been disrupted or destroyed, it is vital to do what you can to restore stability. I think school is the best way to do that.

Deborah Haines, education and emergencies adviser for Save the Children UK, was talking to Adi Bloom. If you have an experience to share, email features@tes.co.uk.

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