At home in her village near Aleppo, Syria, Nisrine Issa had a clear vision of what she wanted for her young daughters.
As they grew, they would not just be in school, but in a good school. The classwork they mastered would open doors to opportunities that she, dropping out after sixth grade and marrying at 16, had never had.
That was before—before the bombings began and the streets became a place of death, before the electricity and hot water went away.
By the time the family made it to Lebanon and House of Light and Hope, an MCC-supported education center in Beirut, what Issa wanted most for her girls was far more basic.
“Something to make them forget what they saw in Syria,” she says.
She turned to the education programs at the center, hoping to give her daughters a space where they could put the sounds of war behind them and begin to overcome the fear that surfaced whenever they heard an airplane or needed to go out from their home into the neighborhood.
For Syrian refugee children, their parents and the MCC partners who work with them in Lebanon, education is far more than reading and writing.
It’s a chance for children and youth to move beyond the horrors they’ve seen. It’s an oasis of routine and stability, regardless of the chaos at home. And it’s a way that young people and their families can build for the future, even as they wait for war to end.
It’s important not to leave a generation of children without the chance to learn, says Rita Abou Atmeh, a social worker at House of Light and Hope.
At the center, tucked into a side street of an impoverished neighborhood in northeast Beirut, Abou Atmeh and other staff work to provide that opportunity to more than 120 Syrian girls.
As they do, they are helping children move beyond estimates that fewer than half of primary school-age Syrian refugees in Lebanon are in school.
“When they come to Lebanon, they’ve suffered a lot. They have many difficulties,” Abou Atmeh says.
Many have lost years of education, first in Syria as families fled to safer locations or amid news of bombings that hit schools, and then in Lebanon as families searched for housing and work.
Their parents fled war, but in many ways, it is still with them—in the constant flow of news reports on each new round of fighting, in conversations with family and friends in Syria, in the terror of not being able to get through to them.
Living situations are far from ideal.
At one point, Nisrine Issa remembers, her family was doubling up with her sister’s family—12 people living in the same room.
At another, she recalls, she felt desperate enough for income that she would go to work, locking the children inside the home and leaving 8-year-old Razane to care for three younger sisters, including one with disabilities severe enough that she can’t walk or feed herself.
Issa quit her job after Razane, alone and in charge, cut her foot badly enough on a can lid that she needed stitches and because of the locked door, no neighbors could get in to help until Issa’s husband Mahmoud Issa could get back to the house.
Today, Razane and her 6-year-old sister Riham spend mornings in an upstairs classroom at House of Light and Hope, working on Arabic, English and math. Razane spends the afternoon in public school, studying alongside other Syrian refugees from 2 to 6 p.m.
When things are tense at home, the center offers a respite. “They have a friendly space where they can go,” Nisrine Issa says. “They are more relaxed.”
“Psychologically they are getting better,” Mahmoud Issa adds. “They are smiling more. They are happier. They are adapting more.”
That’s the progression that House of Light and Hope works hard to gain for students.
Each new pupil meets with a psychologist. A social worker makes home visits. A weekly discussion group gives mothers a chance to talk together about the struggles they are facing and to ask for help from the social worker or psychologist leading the session. “It’s not enough to work with the child,” says center director Germaine Ephrem.
"It’s important not to leave a generation of children without the chance to learn."
- Rita Abou Atmeh
Students and their families commit to coming to class but also to forming goals and an action plan together—a process that helps children and youth reset their sights on looking forward in their own lives, Ephrem says.
True to its roots in empowering vulnerable Lebanese girls, the center continues to emphasize protecting children from harm, making girls aware of their rights and encouraging them to speak up for themselves if things don’t seem right.
Even craft time is about more than making things. Activities are designed so students learn to rely on each other and work together as a team, knitting together new strands of the ties of friendship and community that were torn when they left Syria.
Basic literacy courses give girls who cannot enroll in school a chance to continue to learn and grow.
Classes and tutoring help those who are in school adjust to the education system of a new country.
“At the center, I have the support of the teachers, so I’m learning more,” says 12-year-old Gabriela Aslan, whose family fled from Qamishli in far northern Syria to Damascus and then to Lebanon. “They explain the lesson to me and help me understand.”
MCC partner Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD) works to make that learning happen for the smallest pupils in the Daouk neighborhood of Beirut—a dense maze of makeshift buildings where first Palestinian refugees and now Syrians have found refuge.
Bright yellow paper cut into the shape of the number eight decorates the center of the white board in Yasmin Al Soufi’s kindergarten classroom.
Just beneath it, students practice writing their eights.
One pupil comes to the board to count in English, “three, four, five, six...” A neighboring class shouts out numbers in Arabic. Both are needed.
In Syria, classes were taught in Arabic. In Lebanon, English is needed at even the most basic levels of school; it’s the language of instruction, in fact, for math and science classes.
“The English is important and we didn’t have it,” says Al Soufi, who trained as a teacher in Syria and, like her pupils, fled because of war. (Read more about her.) “With English, it will be easier for them.”
To her, though, the best part of teaching is not the letters and numbers her pupils are learning. It’s not planting flowers or exploring what animals eat.
It’s making room for the everyday delights of childhood.
“I know in the children’s homes, all the talk is negative — about losing, about missing somebody, losing their property, losing their land, missing their future,” she says. “Here, we bring them joy, we bring them happiness.”
And with each skill that her students master, she sees a direct link back home. The children learning to curve their eights in her classroom today are the future of her country, the generation she believes will play a key role in rebuilding after years of war.
“I am teaching my people and trying to compensate for what they lost,” she says. “It’s full of meaning for me.”