Lebanon: "The most important thing is a school in the camp"

The war in Syria has been raging for more than eight years now. Many refugee children have known nothing else but the austere life and exploitative conditions in the area along the Lebanese-Syrian border. The Syrian teacher, Ghada, believes that in an environment that has nothing in common with a normal childhood, the school, in which she works, is a real ray of hope for the girl and boy pupils.

Text and photos: Lorenz Töpperwien / © Kindernothilfe

The sun blazes down unremittingly on the camp. It is hot and dusty. Inside, it is only marginally cooler but, for the eyes, the subdued light comes as a pleasant relief. We are sitting in a spacious hut, made principally from plastic sheeting bearing the UNHCR logo of the United Nations Refugee Organisation. Cloths hang from the walls, a thin carpet, with a geometric pattern, is spread across the well-swept stone floor. Apart from the seating mats along the walls, the only other piece of furniture is a heart-shaped plastic mirror.

Women and children are crouching around us, more and more of them daring to enter the hut. The news that Ghada (pronounced Rada) is here and that she has brought visitors spread like wildfire through the camp. Almost everyone in the camp knows Ghada Abo Mesto, because she – who, herself had to flee Syria – has made support for the Syrian refugees within the Lebanese community of Ghazzé (pronounced Rasi) her mission in life. She is accompanied today by two young men from Germany, who ask several questions: the video journalist, Florian Gregorzyk, and the YouTuber, Manniac. Children and adolescents, in particular, are almost magically drawn to the cameras and Manniac's meticulously groomed hedgehog hairstyle.

(Photo: Lorenz Töpperwien)
In the Damme School, Syrian and Lebanese teachers teach a total of 350 girls and boys

Ghada sets up a school in Ghazzé

Ghada has taken the two Germans to the camp to show them what it is like to live as a Syrian refugee in Lebanon. The refugees and their families are, of course, safe here: there are no bombs, no political persecution, and for this they are grateful. But for the children, especially, conditions are catastrophic because they cannot go to school – there is simply no school. A situation, Ghada is determined to change. And she knows she can succeed, because she already has previous experience. Like most people here, she comes from Zabadani, the former stronghold of the Syrian opposition.

Zabadani lies just over the border, on the other side of the nearby Anti-Lebanon mountain range. It is just 55 kilometres away by road – as the crow flies little more than half of this – but for the people here, the distance is unbridgeable as long as the war criminal Assad continues to call the shots in Syria. Ghada's husband was arrested in 2012, at the very beginning of the civil war in Syria, and has not been seen again. She does not expect to ever see him again. The same also applies to her father, her uncle, in fact, to all the men in her family. That is why she devotes all her energy to women and children. Who else is left?

(Photo: Lorenz Töpperwien)
Ghada Abo Mesto

That was also how the situation was in Zabadani. When bombs destroyed her children's school, she, together with other mothers in the neighborhood set up a makeshift alternative. But, in 2015, government forces besieged the city, destroying their hopes of being able to remain in their homes. With her three children and many others in the same position, she fled to Ghazzé in Lebanon, just across the border. Once again, the children had no school to go to and, once again, Ghada joined forces with others to find a solution. To begin with, they only had three rooms but, now, the school has its own building in Ghazzé, with eight rooms, a garden and playground where the children can spend their breaks.

The school now has 350 pupils aged between four and sixteen. The curriculum seeks to address a serious discrepancy between the school systems in Syria and Lebanon: in Syria, teaching is carried out in Arabic, while, in Lebanon, many subjects are taught in English from the outset. Ghada's auxiliary school counterbalances these deficits and prepares Syrian refugee children for tuition in regular Lebanese schools. Some of the children are performing so well that their achievements are now overshadowing the Lebanese students.

The mayor of Ghazzé, Mohammad Al-Majzoub, regards the refugees as an opportunity for the economy

A mayor, who welcomes refugees

The success of the school in Ghazzé has much to do with the fact that Ghada has managed to gain the support of both Syrian and Lebanese teachers for the project.

This facilitates the effective co-ordination of the different requirements of the two school systems. She has also found a strong partner: ALPHA, a Lebanese non-governmental organisation. Its search for international funding led directly to Kindernothilfe, which, through its sister organisation, Kindernothilfe Luxembourg, and with the support of the Luxembourg Foreign Ministry, has provided one hundred percent financing for the project ever since. The other reason for the project's success is Mohammad Al-Majzoub. The mayor of Ghazzé has a unique attitude towards the refugees in his community: he regards them as an opportunity. This is unusual – not only globally, but also, especially, in a country like Lebanon, which is currently home to an estimated 1.75 million Syrians. In proportional terms, this is approximately a quarter of the population of Lebanon before the start of the refugee crisis. Since this far exceeds the ability of the small country to deal with such a situation, the Lebanese government has made it clear from the outset that these people will not be able to remain on a permanent basis.

Tensions between the local population and the immigrants are increasing, while the authorities are stepping up the pressure on the Syrian refugees. They are subject to a curfew – from eight o'clock each evening – throughout most of the country. Arbitrary police raids on camps in the Bekaa Valley, which also includes Ghazzé, are fuelling the insecurity, while reports about mass camp clearances by the military have been mounting for some time now. But no one has any solution as to where the displaced persons should stay instead.

The mayor of Ghazzé is playing no part in this. For him, the situation is clear: the refugees are largely responsible for the upturn in the local economy. When they arrived, nearly half the houses in Ghazzé were empty, because so many former residents had emigrated. It was the Syrians, who brought life back to the their community, boosted consumption, rented flats and land with the money they were able to bring with them from Syria or through their work bringing in the local harvest. In return, Mohammad Al-Majzoub granted them a high degree of freedom, often in opposition to the outspoken resistance of those in superior positions. In Ghazzé, Syrian refugees are permitted to work, get married, go to school and move about freely. Curfews? They have no place in his thinking. He also takes an entrepreneurial outlook, employing 40 Syrian workers in his plastic factory. "Without them," he says, "I would have to shut down the factory – Lebanese workers are simply not prepared to do this kind of work." Thanks to his policy of openness, Ghazzé has so far been spared the tensions experienced elsewhere. That says a lot in a community, in which the local Lebanese have been clearly in the minority for some time now.

Video journalist Florian Gregorzyk and YouTuber Manniac
In the school's garden, the pupils can play without being afraid

Around 7,000 Lebanese still live here, compared to almost 30,000 Syrian refugees. Numbers vary, however. One local maintains that around 8,000 Syrian children have been born in Ghazzé since 2012. This, however, cannot be verified. On the other hand, one troubling aspect is certain: children and their families are facing a future that is more than uncertain. Even a committed mayor such as Mohammad Al-Majzoub is unable to prevent the war in Syria – raging for over eight years now – from destroying the life prospects of an entire generation.

(Source: Lorenz Töpperwien)
The Bekaa Valley is considered the "fruit and vegetable basket" of the country

At first glance, it is not obvious just how dramatic the situation in the Bekaa Valley is. For several decades, Syrian seasonal workers have been a familiar sight here at harvest time. Even the 35-year-old Nassima is familiar with the months of living in makeshift camps and the long hours of poorly paid hard work in fields and orchards. The difference now is that she cannot return to Syria, fearful of the henchmen working for the Assad regime. She has been stuck in Lebanon since 2012, just like most of the other Syrian harvest workers. For them, the camp has turned into a permanent residence.

(Source: Lorenz Töpperwien)
Nassima has been stuck in Lebanon since 2012

There is very little financial support. Due to the lack of international support, the UNHCR can currently only pay an average of about 20 euros per person per month. However, almost half of the refugees receive nothing. At the same time, the cost of living is increasing and, as if that was not enough, the Lebanese authorities are demanding an exorbitant 180 euros per person for the annual renewal of their residence permits. Which means that, for many, such an offer as the free mobile health service is a matter of survival. It comes to the camp once a week – for refugees, the only possibility to receive medical treatment. Accordingly, the demand is great. The most common complaints, says the doctor on duty, are respiratory and skin diseases. Where required, he refers patients to a specialist colleague for psychological care.

A school for Jalil, Alia and all the other children in the camp

Back at the camp. In the dimly lit hut, the 13-year-old Jalil describes his working day: he gets up at four a.m. and, an hour later, the pickup truck takes him out to the field. Once there, he is responsible for providing water to the harvest workers – without exception women – and ensuring that each stays in her allotted place. He returns to the camp at six p.m.. Seven days a week and for a pittance of about six euros per day.

Jalil. (Source: Lorenz Töpperwien)
Jalil works seven days a week

Like him, many children have to work on farms, in restaurants or in workshops, often under exploitative conditions. Jalil has never seen the inside of a school. When he is asked what he wants to be when he is older, he replies: "A foreman. But one who treats women with respect. Our foreman is a swine!" In response to this, the women present laugh appreciatively and slap his back in agreement.

A girl about the same age as Jalil enters the hut and sits down quietly on the ground. Her pretty face looks unchildlike, serious, almost desperate. Her slim body is tense. Her name is Alia. She looks after her younger siblings during the day, while her mother works in the fields. Her eyes are filled with tears and, suddenly, some of the women start crying.

Is there really no hope at all? "The most important thing is a school for the children," says one of the mothers in a firm voice. Two years ago, their hopes were revived, when a large international aid organisation opened a school in the camp. Everyone who could, sent their children there. But, after only six months, the school ran out of money and, from one day to the next, the lessons stopped. The women are still furious about what happened.

Ghada is also annoyed. That is why she is planning a new start – a school, that will exist for many years. A suitable building is ready for classes to begin, ALPHA is supporting the project and Kindernothilfe is currently evaluating the request for support. If long-term funding is secured, the school may soon be able to commence classes – so that Jalil, Alia and all the other children who live here can finally be given some prospects for the future.

The school in Ghazzé is funded 100 per cent by Kindernothilfe Luxembourg with the support of the Luxembourg Foreign Ministry.