World Refugee Day Middle East: beating the odds
Beirut, 22 June 2016 -- The Syrian conflict is in its sixth year! According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), there are today 4.8 million Syrians who are refugees and an additional 6.5 million are displaced within Syria itself. More than half of these (52%) are children. Tasnim, is one of them. This eight-year old child today lives in Lebanon with her family.
It is more than a year now that her parents Zemzoun and Mohammed fled with their five children from war-ravaged Syria to the safer and more secure environment of neighbouring Lebanon. Tasnim does not remember very much about the day they had to leave the comfort of their small home in rural Damascus; ‘it was very painful and difficult’ she says and then just tunes out clearly trying to forget the way --braving many hostilities-- her family had to come away from the place they once called ‘home’ .
Lebanon is the country with the highest per-capita concentration of refugees in the world, with one in four people within the borders as refugees. At the end of November 2015, the number of UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon was more than a million, while the actual number is most likely much higher, with an estimated 500,000 unregistered.
Based on recently published figures by UNHCR on Lebanon, half of the total number is children below the age of 18; of these, there are more than 477,000 Syrian children who are school-aged . As of October 2015, more than 70% of them were out of school.
The largest percentage of Syrians are living in the Bekaa region as opposed to urban areas, where they are staying in makeshift camps, leaving them vulnerable to poor weather, hygiene and protection concerns. According to a study conducted in 2014, over half of the Syrian children living in the Bekaa had only attained basic reading and writing skills or elementary education before starting work. The Bekaa region has the highest number of out of school children (85%) in the country, largely due to the lack of proximity to schools.
Children are often forced to start working in order to help provide for their families, and usually take jobs or work daily or seasonally in the agricultural sector. In the Bekaa valley, there are thousands of refugee children who have to labour in muddy fields picking up fruits or vegetables or just doing almost anything to eke out an existence. Many are exposed to pesticides, toxic chemicals, heavy loads and exhausting hours. Naturally, many of them are constantly ill, malnourished, and/or subject to abuse and exploitation.
Tasnim, however, is one of the more fortunate refugee children of the Bekaa region as she studies today in the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Al-Andalus school which opened in October 2015. She is delighted about this; she enjoys learning and playing in school. She looks forward to the daily snacks and the other facilities given to her in school. She revels in the warmth, affection and acceptance lavished upon her by her teachers.
Tasnim sits on the front bench of her class. Some visitors come in. They ask those ‘normal’ questions which a little child is subjected to: “When you grow up, what would you like to become?” Answers are the usual ones which a child would give perhaps anywhere in the world:” policeman’, ‘teacher’, ‘cook’ etc.
The question is also directed to Tasnim; in an answer which belies her eight years and surprises everyone, she looks at the visitor, with her arms folded she coyly says “doctor!” Later on, she is asked the ‘why’ of her desire. She does not hesitate in saying, “I want to heal others; I don’t like seeing people dying, killing one another.”
She also shares her longing to go back home to Damascus. As she remembers her grandfather and her sparkling eyes become moist; she loves him very much and enjoyed playing together with him at his house. Then one day he became very sad, she says, because his son (her uncle) was killed. She began feeling very sad too because he was sad. She misses her grandfather very much and wishes that he would come and live with them in Lebanon.
Though Tasnim is in school and is cared for, her father Mohammed works odd jobs, but finds it really difficult to make ends meet. By profession he is a carpenter; back home in Syria he earned a decent wage and was able to provide his family with a comfortable life. The past five years have meant a dramatic change in his fortunes. He had no alternative but to flee with his family to Lebanon. No one speaks about a ‘just wage’ for a refugee. His wife Zemzoum looks after the children and attends to household chores.
In a world enveloped in darkness, where the tragedy of refugees is devastating, one speaks of a ‘lost generation’. Tasnim is an exception and a ray of hope.
Does she understand the meaning of her words, her wish, her dream? This is anybody’s guess.
Though she is just a little child today, her song is not “Que sera? Sera?” (Whatever will be, will be). She has no doubts when asked what she wants to be. “A doctor!” The odds are surely heavily stacked against Tasnim and her dream; but JRS, through its commitment, to education will do all it can to accompany her to realise that dream!
--Fr Cedric Prakash SJ, JRS Middle East and North Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer