What can a donation of $630 buy?

As part of our series reporting from Lebanon, we follow your donations from Dubai to the refugee camp doorstep 

A year of education for one refugee child in Lebanon

Sharifa, 13, looks as though she has been skipping rope all her life. A picture of insouciant grace, she counts each revolution in a different language, dancing through Arabic, English and French every time she lifts her little feet from the ground: “Sitta, seven, huit,” she shouts. “Tis’a, ten, onze…”

The youngster, who arrived in Lebanon 18 months ago with her mother, father and six siblings, is expending her energies after an afternoon in the classroom. A year ago she would have been exhausted by this time of day, having spent hours in nearby fields picking fruits, vegetables and spices, in order to help boost her family’s meagre income.

“I used to be tired and sick with work, but now I’m very happy,” she says. “School is lovely, I’m making friends and learning a new language as I did not speak French before.”

Sharifa is a child again, infused with an innocence that belies the squalor of her surroundings. She and her family live in an informal tented settlement near Terbol in the Bekaa Valley, an otherwise beautiful swathe of farmland in eastern Lebanon.

Here, in a world of open latrines, crusted brown mud and swollen black flies, the arrival of the school bus is one of the few moments when these refugees can entertain hope for the future. Sharifa and her friends attend classes in the afternoon as part of the ‘second shift’ programme instituted by the UNHCR and its partners.

It is estimated that between 32 and 34 per cent of registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon are of school age, and so the UNHCR pays for teachers across the country to pull double duty in order to meet demand. The morning shift is dedicated to Lebanese pupils and the Lebanese syllabus, the afternoon to refugee children and a curriculum designed to dovetail with Syria’s education system.

Schools running two shifts provide classes in Arabic, French, Maths, Science, Civil Society and Geography, and take students between the ages of six and 14, after which it is hoped that the pupils will be fluent enough in French to enter secondary education in Lebanon, should they wish to continue their studies.

Currently, 32,000 Syrian refugees are enrolled under the programme, at an annual cost of $630 per child per year.

Ahmad Mumtazz Jaam is the principal at Jedeidet Al Kayteh, a second shift school on the coast of the Akkar District in northern Lebanon. Close to 600 pupils attend classes in the morning, and then 431 Syrian refugees fill the same wooden benches each afternoon.

Funding for the school comes from the UNHCR through its implementing partner, Save The Children. The money is transferred to the bank account of the school, and this allows Jaam and his staff to run the second shift.

“The children are learning, and in the first term at least 40 per cent passed [their exams],” he says. “We didn’t expect this, but it happened.”

There are significant challenges to maintaining this pass rate. According to Jaam, as many as 330 of the second shift pupils attend classes without being persuaded to do so by the school and its staff. The remaining 100 are more difficult to coax through the school gates. Their parents are “not pro-education”, he says, and pupils are sent to see “what they can get out of it”: a free pencil, perhaps a copybook, or a school bag.

There are also issues with discipline, as you might expect considering the background of the children.

“It’s a condensed programme that is all academic: there are no PE or art classes, no sports, no computers,” says Jaam. “So the Syrian child living in one room with the whole family comes to the school and faces even greater stresses as [the curriculum] is purely academic.

“Some of these children have already lost two or three years of education and they are living under stress so they can be quite aggressive,” he adds. “However things are starting to get better with the students and with the parents, because they have been studying here for three or four months now.

“We are trying to be positive with the children and put ourselves in their shoes,” Jaam continues, but they are doing it on their own. “We don’t have psychologists in the school or any psychosocial support so the teachers have to play this role. We would like to bring in a psychologist, someone who has experience with trauma and knows the Syrian background, to help the children, but so far this has not happened.”