Syrian Refugee Children Find Hope, Solace at School in Lebanon
September 18, 2014
Thousands of Syrian refugee children are growing up without an education.
Raafat, a 14-year-old Syrian refugee in Lebanon, joins a steady stream of children walking circumspectly toward a cinderblock school building on the outskirts of their tent settlement. Some of the children, never cracking a smile, look like they are bearing the weight of the world.
The two-story building is not much more than a stone’s throw from some of the makeshift shelters. Here Raafat and one of his younger brothers can leave the squalor and sorrow of camp life behind and focus on more uplifting subjects, such as geography or poetry.
Like the other students, he is two or three years behind in his studies – another tragic consequence of the war in Syria. Still, he considers himself one of the lucky ones among the more than 400 refugee children. He has a mom and a dad; many of the kids lost at least one parent before their families fled Syria.
Of the five siblings in Raafat’s family, only two are going to school. His older sister stays at home to help their mother, and his 15-year-old brother dropped out of school and found a job to help support the family. He earns $26 a week.
“I love learning, and when I grow up I want to go back to my country to become a math teacher and help other children learn,” said Raafat, his face lighting up.
Moved with compassion
Hafiz*, the school’s director, is a Bedouin chief and follower of Jesus Christ. In the 1950s, his grandfather prayed that one day there would be a school for the many uneducated children of herdsmen in their tribe.
The school is a hub for food distribution to the Syrian refugees.
Hafiz’s father fulfilled that dream in 1961, when he started a school in a tent in Lebanon’s picturesque Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border. A Christian Aid Mission-assisted ministry in Lebanon began partnering with the school in 1998, supplying books, heating fuel, transportation for students and salaries for teachers. They also opened a Christian camp in the mountains that more than 70 Bedouin children attend every summer.
With the outbreak of war in Syria in March 2011, the small Bedouin school suddenly found itself encircled by a tent city of refugees who fled across the border. While Bedouin youngsters were learning to read and do simple arithmetic, Syrian children within sight of the school’s windows played in the dirt. That was more than the Bedouin chief and the Lebanese ministry leader, Ammad*, could bear.
“Like the Bedouins, the Syrian refugees are marginalized people, second-class citizens,” Ammad said. “We knew we had to jump in and help.”
The school gives the refugee children enough of a foundation so they can at least read and write, he said, “and we are able to share the gospel with them and their families.”
As 120 Bedouin children quickly filled the facility’s six classrooms to near capacity, the school divided the day into two shifts – Bedouin kids in the morning and Syrians in the afternoon. But Syrian children kept coming. About 420 now attend, and Ammad estimates double that number have been turned away for lack of space.
Just 14 instructors, themselves Syrian refugees, do their best to educate the children without the convenience of books, classroom materials, or even a salary. Aminah* teaches math at the school. Before the war, she was an accountant at a travel agency in Syria and her husband worked for Pepsi Cola. They fled to Lebanon with their two young sons over a year ago.
Teaching without training or salary, she says she can see a “90 percent improvement” in the lives of students she has taught during the last five months.
“That makes it worthwhile,” she said.
Love of Jesus
Some of the Syrian children have been subjected to the unspeakable horror of seeing their parents slaughtered. Girls have been raped. Their houses have been shelled or burned. Hunger is a constant companion.
School provides stability in the lives of children whose world is turned upside down.
The school, by contrast, is the first place they hear the words, “Jesus loves you.”
Working with local believers, the Lebanese ministry conducts outreach to both children and their families. Sometimes the children introduce their parents to Christ.
“Many parents like that their children are now less aggressive,” Ammad said. “They don’t hit anymore. They are more caring and loving toward others. They ask us, ‘What did you do to our kids?’ I tell them, ‘We just give them the love of Jesus.’”
Bible camps in the summer, where children hear a clear presentation of the gospel, have been particularly fruitful. Ammad estimates about two-thirds of the children who attend camp decide to follow Jesus.
As part of his ministry’s evangelistic outreach, Ammad said Lebanese Christians, many of them converts from Islam, do visitation and follow-up with families in the refugee camps. They pray with them, share the gospel, and connect them with area house churches.
Offering an eight-week Bible study that presents a biblical foundation, the ministry works with nine house groups of about a dozen people each. Essentially all of those who go through the study become Christians. The ministry gives participants New Testaments, spiritual counseling and puts them in contact with several churches.
“They do not advertise the groups. It is all by word-of-mouth,” said Ammad. “So every two months this one program sends 100 new believers to the churches. This demonstrates the hunger for the Lord among the Syrian refugees.”
Last year a Syrian mother brought her 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter to the ministry; she fell to her knees as she pleaded for someone to take care of her children.
“We prayed with her and helped her children,” said Ammad. “The children go to the Bedouin school. Their mom started going to one of the house groups and has become a believer. They are all doing great.”
The humanitarian needs are challenging, but seeing the spiritual growth is beautiful, Ammad said.
“We need as much help as possible to continue to reach as many kids as we can.”
The cost to cover books, school materials, and snacks for one child per month is about $40. The ministry would also like to provide a living allowance to the school’s teachers. The total cost to operate the school, including salaries for teachers, student supplies, and maintenance and upkeep of the building, exceeds $10,000 per month. Any amount is appreciated, as this school provides a lifeline and an anchor of hope for traumatized Syrian children.