Tucked down a narrow, traffic-clogged street in the center of this southern Lebanese city sits a non-descript three-story building. Here, a Palestinian charity worker is trying to bring a semblance of normality to children displaced from the war ravaging neighboring Syria.
Mahmoud Manaa, popularly known as Abu Hussein, runs the operations of the Joint Christian Council (JCC) in Sidon. Through dogged determination, he has helped 180 young Syrian and Palestinian students continue their education and take part in official brevet and baccalaureate exams in Damascus.
“We as an NGO opened our center to provide displaced Palestinian and Syrian children the opportunity to educate themselves in the Syrian program because no one in Lebanon is providing this service,” he says.
He turned two small rooms in his office into makeshift classrooms, hired teachers from the Syrian refugee population living in the Sidon area, and rotated students through two five-hour shifts per day.
The JCC is one of the oldest charities working with Palestinians in Lebanon and focuses on vocational and educational services for men and women. The logistical problems facing Abu Hussein were formidable. The project, funded by the charity Action of Churches Together, started with 90 Palestinian and Syrian students and quickly swelled to 180, straining the capacity of his small office. Abu Hussein had no official Syrian school text books to hand out to the students.
“The Syrian ministry of education did not distribute any books so we photocopied books for 200 students from just one [original] copy,” he says.
Challenges of displacement
While many of the Syrian and Palestinian students are staying in Sidon and the adjacent Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, other students are scattered across south Lebanon. Abu Hussein hired bus drivers to bring them to his tiny classrooms.
Next was the problem of formally registering the children with Syrian educational authorities. Many of the students fled with their families from war zones, such as the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, and had little time to bring identity documents and papers necessary for educational registration.
Abu Hussein travelled to Damascus and with the help of UNRWA, the United Nations agency that handles Palestinian refugee affairs, and officials at the Syrian education ministry, he was able to register 200 students for the official brevet and baccalaureate exams.
For Syrian and Palestinian refugees having fled the Syrian war to a destitute and difficult life in Lebanon, JCC’s education project provided a beacon of hope.
“I heard about it through friends. I was living in Ain al-Hilweh and I came here because I wanted to continue my education,” says Noura Mouawad, 17, a partially-sighted Palestinian girl who was displaced from the Yarmouk Palestinian camp 18 months ago.
Difficulties of Lebanese law
Before the students could travel to Damascus to take the exams, Abu Hussein had another hurdle to overcome. Under Lebanese law, any Palestinian refugee that chooses to leave Lebanon will be barred from returning.
Lebanon is a reluctant host to some 450,000 officially registered Palestinian refugees whose forebears fled Palestine in 1948 during the war that led to the creation of Israel. Around half of them live in 12 officially recognized camps amid conditions of poverty, overcrowding, poor infrastructure, and rampant crime and militancy. The Palestinians are banned from most professions and are forced to eke out livings mainly from menial labor. The problem has been greatly exacerbated by the influx of more than one million Syrians fleeing the civil war, placing an intolerable burden on the cash-strapped Lebanese state. The Lebanese government recently announced that any Syrian citizen who returns to Syria would not be allowed back into Lebanon, the same condition imposed upon the stateless Palestinian refugees.
Abu Hussein visited Lebanon’s General Security department, which handles immigration issues, and persuaded them to make an exception for the students so that they could attend the exams in Damascus and then return to their families staying in Lebanon.
“The General Security was very understanding and they helped us a lot,” Abu Hussein says.
When it came time to travel to Damascus, not all students were willing to go. It was not the fear of being caught up in the violence in Syria that made them reluctant but the possibility that they would be prevented from returning afterwards irrespective of the deal with General Security.
An uncertain future
Now, for those that took and passed their baccalaureate exams, the future is uncertain. Most want to attend university, but they lack the funds and as refugees there is doubt that Lebanese higher education institutions would accept them.
“I want to study medicine in Lebanon. It’s in my nature to help people but I don’t think we can afford it. It will be very difficult,” says Naima al-Lahm, 18, a Syrian girl from Al-Midan in Damascus.
Most of the students view education as an escape from the grim reality of their lives.
“Education is the only thing that can help us. We have no home, no country. At least we can have an education,” says Yara, a Palestinian girl. “When we left Yarmouk, we lost all hope in life. But we have got some of it back by being here.”
Mona, another Palestinian girl agrees.
“This place is a big chance for us,” she says referring to Abu Hussein’s project. “This place makes us feel like we didn’t leave Syria. It makes us feel like we are at home.”