BEQAA’, LEBANON—Fadi al-Halabi was working as a doctor in a public hospital in Damascus in 2013. He was in his last year of residency, but like thousands of Syrians facing likely death or imprisonment in their country’s war, he sought refuge in Lebanon, where his credentials are not recognized.
At that time, there were 700,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, according to the UNHCR. (Today, there are more than a million.) With the Lebanese government unable to provide basic services to this population, al-Halabi and a handful of professional colleagues formed Multi Aid Programs (MAP), an organization to support Syrian refugees in Lebanon with educational programs and health care.
MAP now provides education to children and young people in the Beqaa’ valley in Lebanon, close to the Syrian border, where 300,000 Syrian refugees have settled. According to a report published last year by Human Rights Watch, Growing up Without an Education: Barriers to Education for Syrian Refugee Children in Lebanon, an estimated 250,000 children in Lebanon are not in school, some of whom have never been to school.
Although the Lebanese government allows Syrian refugee children to attend public schools free of charge, many of these children are unable to benefit from the opportunity. The Human Rights Watch report explained why:
- Lebanese law makes it difficult for Syrians to work legally in the country, so Syrians working illegally to provide for their families fear arrest. This makes such families reluctant to register with Lebanese government services, including schools.
- Families cannot afford the expenses involved with attending school, such as transportation and school supplies.
- Some families rely on the income from child labor, which they would lose if a child enrolled in school.
- Refugees face harassment by Lebanese students and teachers, and teaching is often conducted in languages in which they are not yet fully proficient, such as French and English. Refugee families also see obstacles regarding the education of girls, about whose safety they are concerned, and children with special needs, who need bespoke facilities the Lebanese schools don’t always have.
“As Syrians, we are very aware of the problems we face in the country of refuge,” al-Halabi said. “So in our initiative, we tried to solve these problems to encourage students and their families to complete their education.”
“We started with a few non-official primary education classes and a simple clinic that we set up in a parking lot,” he continued. “We wanted to demonstrate that Syrians can and should help each other while we are in neighboring countries.”
Today, the MAP education program has a staff of about 300 Syrian teachers. They serve about 3,500 students ranging in age from six years old to those old enough to leave high school The MAP medical program provides medical care to about 10,000 patients monthly.
Syrian students take lessons in nine centers set up in the Beqaa’ by MAP. Classes are held in two shifts—morning and evening—to accommodate the largest possible number of students. The study centers are set up inside prefabricated buildings. At one school visited recently, classrooms were small but neat, with walls covered in colorful artwork made by students, and potted plants outside.
But the school is not yet officially licensed by the Lebanese state.
“In the beginning, we worked under the umbrella of a licensed Lebanese association,” al-Halabi said. “Then, we got a legal license as an association from the Ministry of Interior. But we have no license for the school as we have not been able to meet the requirements of the Lebanese government.”
The program depends on donations to cover the cost of educational materials, and to pay a basic wage to teachers.
“The biggest problem that Syrian students face is lacking the official identity papers that Lebanese schools require for registration,” said al-Halabi. “Also, a substantial number of students have been out of school for more than two years and need a great deal of help to get back into school again.”
The MAP schools use Lebanese curricula, and focus on helping students obtain continuing education credits. Students who can pass Lebanese tests can get credit for their work. There is an emphasis on science, but also on art.
“Artistic activities help students recreate themselves and encourage them to go back to classes after dropping out,” said Mariam al-Abd, who holds a diploma in education from the University of Damascus and is a MAP manager.
Education specialists from the American University of Beirut are providing additional professional training for Syrian refugees with teaching qualifications.
Al-Halabi believes it is important for Syrian students to be taught by a Syrian teacher. “The presence of a Syrian teacher has a wonderful effect on students’ performance. A Syrian teacher is aware of the reality and conditions faced by a student from his own country.”
Lubna Saqar, a Lebanese teacher and education specialist in the Beqaa’ region, was impressed by what she saw of the MAP schools. “It seems an ideal project, especially in the Beqaa’ region, which lacks infrastructure and development, and is full of extremely poor refugees in a country whose own people are also poor,” she said. But Saqar believes that refugee students’ education needs “a more accurately designed plan that includes all refugee students in the country, and not just those in one district.”
Despite the great expansion of the initiative over the past three years, al-Halabi does not see it expanding beyond its current activities. “Expansion to other areas is not easy,” he said. “It needs more funding and a more certain legal situation.”