'Our futures have been taken'

28th June 2013 at 01:00
Syrian child refugees in Lebanon may have escaped the savage fighting, but many are traumatised, unable to access education and living in desperate circumstances

Hitcham Kamar sighs as he shuffles a large bundle of papers on his desk. He wraps an elastic band securely around the pile and puts it in a drawer, where it will stay. The bundle contains more than 170 applications from the last month alone for registration at a public school in Kabelias (a town in Lebanon), of which he is the principal. All the applications are for Syrian refugee children whose families have fled the civil war that has been devastating Syria since the Arab Spring of 2011.

"Every day, Syrian parents are coming to me and asking me to admit three or four kids," he explains. "Last term, I admitted more than 150 refugee children. We had 650 pupils on the roll before, now it is close to 800.

"Class sizes have increased from 25 to 30 pupils on average and teachers are working 10 extra hours a week. My staff are not happy about it but they can't overrule me. Three just quit in protest. I can't blame them. I just hope my government sends me some new teachers to replace them."

Then he throws back his head and laughs. "Where they will find them, I don't know. Who wants to be a teacher in Lebanon?"

It is a good question. Lebanon's own education system is at crisis point: earlier this year, public school teachers went on strike for three months because they had not been paid. Schools across the country shut their doors and Lebanese children went without classes.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the country's poorly funded education system was ill-equipped to deal with a huge influx of refugees and a humanitarian crisis that Lebanon has borne the brunt of. Around a third of those fleeing Syria and crossing the border to a neighbouring country are heading for Lebanon. The Lebanese government claims that as many as 1 million of them may now be living there.

Prey to private landlords

Kabelias is a dusty and poor agricultural town in the Bekka Valley, just two hours from the Syrian border. When TES visited, tensions were running high. In a local shop Lebanese housewives are frustrated that the Syrians have left no bread for them to buy. "Next they will take all the medicine," one says.

Everywhere you look there are refugee families sleeping in makeshift shelters by the sides of roads, crammed in rows of tents in farmers' fields or lodging in garages or farm outbuildings. Lebanon has no official refugee camps so families must find shelter where they can. Most are forced into the private sector where they are prey to landlords and loan sharks.

Rents for a tent in a shared field average $200 (pound;130) a month, plus the cost of the wood and plastic for the tent. A garage with no electricity or water can be let for as much as $400. As one landlord put it: "We Lebanese now park our car on the street and let the Syrians pay for the garage." Many refugees complain of getting into debt or being made homeless when they cannot pay.

On the other hand, locals in Kabelias protest that refugees are taking what few Lebanese jobs there are by undercutting daily labour rates. And they say the Syrians are borrowing so much on credit from local shopkeepers that some businesses have gone under as a result of non-paying customers.

If the Syrians do not go home soon, Kamar fears that the situation will "explode". "I have parents complaining that they don't want these children in school. I tell them, `Yes we are poor, but we must be sympathetic - they are poorer.' I am an educator and I don't care where the children come from, it's my responsibility to teach them."

In his school the situation is made harder because the Syrian children are used to a curriculum taught entirely in Arabic, whereas in Lebanese schools key subjects such as mathematics and science are taught in either English or French, so the refugee students struggle to adapt.

Kamar now has more than 700 Syrian children on his waiting list. And the situation in Kabelias is being replicated across the country. For many children, there is simply no chance of a place.

Aid agencies have attempted to step in to fill the gap - in the car park are four shipping containers that have been turned into temporary classrooms. Here children's charity World Vision runs intensive three- month programmes of classes for 8- to 14-year-olds in core subjects.

In one classroom I meet Fady El Eham, a mathematics teacher from the city of Homs in Syria. He believes that the fact that he is also a refugee helps the children. "They know that I understand what they have been through," he says. "I try to stay focused on maths, but not a lesson goes by where one child doesn't start talking about the war and about what has happened."

I see that for myself when I ask the children about what they want to be when they grow up. "We don't have dreams," snaps one girl, crossly. "Our futures have been taken."

Another boy tells me all he wants is to go home. "My school was bombed, my friends tried to run away, I saw their bodies in pieces. This happened on the day we had exams. But I don't want to be here, I want to be in Syria."

`A little bit of child time'

On the same site World Vision is also running a programme providing safe play spaces for 120 five- to eight-year-olds. At these the emphasis is on relaxation and psychosocial activities.

"Many of the children were themselves injured," social coordinator Joelle Wakim explains. "We have a lot of kids here with shrapnel wounds or burst eardrums from the constant bombardments. Almost all of them lost family members and several of them actually saw people die in front of them.

"Every single one of them is living in very poor conditions, in cold tents or sleeping on concrete floors in rooms with up to 20 other people. It is truly dire. We can't fix everything but coming here at least allows them a little bit of child time."

The children gather for a song in which they clap their hands and dance. As they giggle and smile, it is hard to believe what they have endured.

"We don't try to encourage them to talk but just to be and to play," Wakim continues. "But most of them want to tell us about it. So we have to make sure the trauma is managed carefully."

Next Wakim leads a behaviour therapy activity where the children are asked to choose an action followed by a consequence. "It teaches them to make their own rules," she says. "It's a fun game but it also empowers them to make decisions. All the norms and standards of life have been destroyed, society has broken down. All we can do is try to put a little bit of normality back for an hour a week."

She tells me about one boy who drew a family group of a mother and father plus three children but then drew himself separately on another piece of paper. The family group represented his parents and brothers, all dead.

Some six-year-old boys sit drawing at a nearby table. One of them has made a picture of a house with a woman sitting outside it in a chair. He tells me his name is Abdul Karim Talib. I ask who is in the picture. He smiles shyly and replies, "My mother." I ask where his house is. "Gone," he says flatly. When I ask if he likes coming to the play space, his face lights up like a light bulb as he nods wildly.

Weight of responsibility

The following day as I am walking through Kabelias, a boy waves at me from across the street. He is pushing a woman wearing a black robe in a wheelchair. The boy is Talib. Now I understand why he drew his mother sitting down. She introduces herself as Mouna.

"Talib's father was killed in the fighting," she says. "I lost the use of my legs during pregnancy because of hypertension. I need constant medication for my blood pressure but I have not had any since arriving here three months ago. What if I die? Who will care for him? And now Talib is all I have, too. At night he has to help me get to the bathroom because there is no one else. I fear for him because he is only 8 and I know he shouldn't have all this responsibility. He's just a baby."

She starts to cry. Talib gently pushes her hair out of her eyes and back under her scarf. The fear and concern etched into his face make him look 80 not 8.

"We were bombed day and night for weeks," Mouna continues. "Then some neighbours came and said the Free Syrian Army was opening the road for a few hours and that we could go with them. We didn't have time to take anything. We have only these clothes." She points to Talib's dirty, stained sweater and her own robe. Since they fled, her brother and sister- in-law have followed them, and the extended family are renting a room together. But as Mouna explains, it is still precarious: "My brother can't find work. The landlord has threatened to throw us out. If he does we will try to find a tent."

I ask how she will cope with a wheelchair in a muddy tent during the winter months. She shakes her head: "I don't know." Her eyes meet Talib's. He, too, looks terrified at the prospect.

Later that day I meet Hamad, his heavily pregnant wife Mariam and his five children. Their eldest daughter, 10-year-old Itab, had a place at Kabelias school, but last week she had to leave because they could not afford the $30 (pound;19) a month school bus fees to get her there. Home for them is a half-constructed building with no roof, windows or sanitation. The building has four floors and there is a family in each room, each paying $200 a month.

Hamad wakes up at 5am each day and either walks or hitchhikes into town to try to find daily labour. If he is lucky he might earn $20 (pound;13) a day. Most days he finds nothing and comes home with only what he can scavenge. The sums simply do not add up. The family has not been able to pay the rent and has been told that they will be evicted the next week. They have no idea what they will do.

"I feel like less of a man," Hamad says. "I can't take care of my pregnant wife and I can't give my children a home. Itab cries constantly because she misses school. I don't know where we will sleep next week. But of everything, the one thing I can't forgive myself for is not helping her stay in school. What kind of father am I? And what kind of future will she have now?"

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