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Back to school

A Heart for Lebanon non-formal education center for refugee children in Beirut ©Carmen Andres
My kids go back to school this week. Last week, I spent hours filling out stacks of forms, funding lunch accounts, standing in registration lines and tracking down school supplies. Most years, I struggled to curb my irritation with the paperwork and long lines. This year, I simply felt lucky.
USAID reports that 2.7 million of the estimated six million Syrian refugee or displaced children can’t go to school. According to UNICEF , that is more than the combined under-18 population of Los Angeles and Boston. Iraqi refugees are expected to reach three million this year. Of the estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Iraqi refugees in Lebanon, half of those are children and the majority can’t go to school either.
For many of these children, the public school systems in the hosting countries simply don’t have room, and most refugees don’t have the funds for private schools—even if the private schools would take them.
Most of these children haven’t stepped foot in a classroom for several years, and many of them are working instead. The Guardian reported this summer that thousands of Syrian children have become farm laborers in fields and warehouses in Lebanon, and nearly half of the Syrian refugee households in Jordon rely on children’s income to survive. In Lebanon, children make about $8 a day for 10 hours of work.

I met some of these children earlier this year when I went to Lebanon, which is hosting close to two million refugees. It was winter, and most of the Syrian children I met spent their days in tent settlements or working. In Beirut, I met Iraqi families at a food distribution center, where the children sat on their parents’ laps or helped them carry bags of food and rations.

As the crisis continues to grow, so will the number of refugees. But in the midst of staggering statistics, there are islands of hope.

In Lebanon, I visited two of three non-formal education “Hope Centers” run by Heart for Lebanon, a Lebanese faith-based relief and development organization working with Iraqi and Syrian refugees. With public schools unable to take in refugee children, non-formal education efforts funded by NGOs has gained momentum as a substitute for the hosting country’s schools.

A classroom in a Heart for Lebanon non-formal education
center in the Bekaa Valley / copyright Carmen Andres

In the Bekaa Valley, H4L’s education center is housed in an old church at the foot of a large mountain range which separates Lebanon from Syria. Standing outside, we heard the distant booming of artillery from a battle taking place on the other side of the mountains. Inside, the classrooms were cold. One class met in the kitchen next to a wood stove.

The children were the most vulnerable or marginalized of the refugee population. Some were orphans, and others had lost a parent. Others were disabled or traumatized from their experiences. The mother of one of the girls had died in childbirth at a checkpoint in Syria, and one of her brothers had been shot and killed. Another girl needed eye surgery. I saw one little boy on crutches.

But you wouldn’t know that most of them were refugees by the way they acted. They reminded me of the kids in my own children’s schools—laughing and smiling during games, concentrating on assignments, raising their hands and writing answers on chalk and white boards.

A classroom in a Heart for Lebanon non-formal education
center in Beirut / copyright Carmen Andres

It was the same in Beirut. In a converted warehouse in densely packed city, the classrooms of this H4L education center were packed with over 100 children. From a second story window, I watched children play organized games on the concrete parking lot below. Inside, children were learning traditional subjects like arithmetic and reading. After school, some of them took lessons to play keyboards, guitars and other instruments. It felt like a miniature version of our elementary schools.

As I watched them, it dawned on me that these kids in the Bekaa Valley and Beirut were experiencing normal in a place where normal was rare and precious.

And that makes a difference. A big difference.

If you are looking for a way to tug at the edges of largest humanitarian crisis to face the world since World War II, consider supporting H4L or another organization like it. It is easy to be overwhelmed by the stories, pictures and sheer numbers of refugees. But you can make a difference. Don't wait. Do it now.

This post was originally posted at For Such a Time is Now, a website I developed to raise awareness of the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, where you can find out more about the crisis and how you can help.