‘When you close your eyes and think of peace, what do you see?’
Following the seacoast, the drive from Beirut to Saida is around forty minutes and I still remember how disappointed I was when my plane landed it was late and dark so I missed my first impression of the place. Leaving the hustle and bustle of Beirut, one arrives to Saida and finds a small fishing town with a colorful souk, an imposing crusader castle and the beautiful seafront. It was here that I will spend my next two months as part of a teaching project that works with the Syrian refugees– so I embraced it and decided to discover it bit by bit.
However, that was the easy part. It was arriving to the Ouzai refugee settlement that left quite an impression on me. I never before saw a refugee camp. I did not expect – yet I was struck by the greyness of the concrete structure situated just at the entrance of the city. The missing windows would give a hollowness to the whole building, yet the colorful clothes and rugs hanging here and there gave a sense of liveliness, of stubbornness to resist this dump air surrounding the place. Once arrived in front of the entrance, smiling girls and boys would approach the car, saluting and playing in their reckless ways. It was all that I needed.
Once it was supposed to be a university campus, but since the project was abandoned, the building became the second SB Overseas centre for Learning and Empowerement and it was opened in 2017 ( Beirut, Saida, Arsal). With the headquarters in Belgium, Sb Overseas currently runs three centers in Lebanon, the one in Saida being the newest and largest project – housing 1500 Syrian refugees. Around 320 children are registered to attend school, accommodating their levels and ages as well as preparing them for public school –so crucial in their chances of success.
Children and youth in Saida are attending Arabic, English, math, science and general knowledge classes; awareness and wellness sessions led by SB’s psychologist; art and sport activities; and homework support sessions designed to help students catch up in their classes at public school. Besides this, there is also a Woman Empowerement Program which offers Arabic, English and fitness classes. There are also literacy programmes for younger and older refugee women – as a means to empower them and help them better integrate in the society. However the primary focus is to provide them with a marketable skill– courses such as sewing, embroidery, knitting, doll making, jewellery, and hairdressing – in actually being able to earn an income.
As the countries bordering Syria have seen a massive influx of refugees, nowadays, one in every three people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Despite the fact that it has crippled the Lebanese public system in many aspects, the refugees are in need of support as the children risk of being a lost generation. Displacement, trauma, poverty, abuse and loss of dignity – these are some of the critical aspects that the victims have to deal with in order to rebuild their lives and to prevent them from turning to bitterness, hatred and violence. Besides, the moral dignity of these people should be dealt with as they are constantly called under ‘refugees’- they have lost their sense of identity and now are considered just a number in statistics.
Due to the high numbers of refugee children, the Lebanese state has failed to place all these children in public school – therefore, many of the refugee children have poor access to schooling – or none at all, therefore it is imperative to set up non-formal schools and activities that will enable the kids to catch up and work their way to the public school and later on, a means to support their families.
According to a report from United Nations bodies, 17% of Syrian refugee households in Lebanon are run by women. Besides education and material needs, the women and girls living in refugee camps are suffering from trauma and bereavement. As many of them have lost their loved ones – husband, brother, father- they are now faced with the need of providing, they have become the breadwinners for their family. They have left from being a child to being an adult. Such a sharp switch. Yet, they need the time and space to grieve, so psychological support and counseling are particularly important.
But the question is how? They lack sufficient income to ensure food and shelter for them and their families. They are not permitted to work, they might not even have the competences and preparation necessary, therefore many women and girls are at an increased risk of facing sexual and gender-based violence.
Marriage – unfortunately – is seen as a solution – and although the girls are not prepared, although they are giving up their childhood and the possibility of being educated, their parents consider this as an immediate solution, as a way of escaping the harsh and overcrowded conditions. Besides, the lack of male family figures cause some females heads of household to worry for their security and reputations – marrying them seems a way of protecting them from exploitation or abuse. Yet, don’t think that the camp is a sanctuary for the women! As they have left their husbands, brothers and sons behind, now they are preyed by men roaming free in a lawless place such as a camp. While kidnapping and selling girls for prostitution is common, marriage has become the religious seal of approval for sex – regardless of age, girls become vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
Child marriage, prostitution, domestic violence and child labor are the devils to escape from in these harsh conditions. But then, who to turn to? Who will listen or give a hand in a foreign country that does not acknowledge you and where you are considered a mere ‘refugee’? Raising awareness – of gender based violence, the rights and responsibilities of a woman, the fact that she is entitled to have a safe space where she can seek help or advice – where she could share her story of violence and abuse and see that she is not alone! This- although not only – could be helpful in healing and eventually building their confidence and self-esteem.
All in all, the children of yesterday became the adults we see today – and yes, I can say that I have never seen children as I have seen in Ouzai. Their jolliness, their dancing, their passion for music and laughing around are overshadowed by the load they carry – their lack of safety, their responsibilities, and overall their circumstances have left a deep imprint on their spirits. Their eyes seem vividly aware of this all chaos, this all mess we live in, and yet they cannot do anything. They are too small, yet they dream big. Their solutions are not more than mere jokes –but still – they know. They have a sense of dignity that I have never encountered at other children. Yet, most probably, ‘haneen’ is the word which best describe it – the longing for something you have lost.
Many times I would find myself stuck – in understanding either how can they do it? There are so many stories to tell, so many tears to still fall, yet – there they were – screaming and shouting and rebelling against each other with these bursts of energy only a child has. I would find myself stuck because it was still incredible to me, in explaining myself – in which world am I living? Why all these kids have grown up that early while others are left with no care in the world? Why these kids have a swamp for a playground? Why did they have to run away? From death? There are many kinds of death – and although physically alive, although apparently functional in the everyday activities, the heaviness of the memories, the loss of your loved ones, the harshness and cruelty, the hurt and despair – all these are just another way of saying that you are dead emotionally, as a child, as a lover, as a mother.
Yet – there remains the longing – there is still hope. I have met many children, mothers, fathers in this position – and yet – they do! They hope because this is the only thing they still have. Now it is on us if we encourage this hope, if we alleviate their needs and make a difference. I cannot say much of the difference I have made but one thing is sure – I will not stop – yet!
(For any questions please feel free to comment below and for more info about the volunteering opportunities, please check out the main page of SB – http://www.sboverseas.org)