• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Young breadwinner returns to school in Lebanon

News Stories, 21 April 2011

© UNHCR/Z.Kazem
Iraqi refugee Mustapha studying at the Amel community centre in Beirut's suburbs.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, April 21 (UNHCR) At an age when children in other countries are probably scheming to skip classes, Mustapha was forced to leave his school and country for a grim life of exile and child labour.

In 2004, the 11-year-old and his family fled their home in Iraq to seek refuge in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. His father worked as a porter in a bus station, but his wages were not enough to support the large family. "My parents and five brothers and sisters and I shared a one-bedroom apartment with a stranger. We could barely afford to eat, so I had to find a job," said Mustapha.

The boy spent long hours working as a shoe salesman, carpenter, grocer and doorkeeper for minimum wage. "I was constantly humiliated at work, especially when I worked as a doorkeeper," he said, choking up. "The residents of the building treated me with disdain, even kids my age would treat me like a slave."

Mustapha's problem is not uncommon among the young Iraqi refugee population in Lebanon. "School absenteeism is a serious problem among refugees in Lebanon," explained Agatha Abi Aad, UNHCR's community services assistant in Beirut. "This is especially true in secondary schools where enrolment rates do not exceed 33 per cent with significant numbers of dropouts throughout the year."

It is difficult to address this problem for various reasons. "Heads of households either have a lot of difficulty finding jobs or are simply resigned to not even try," said Abi Aad. "The youth are automatically assigned the role of breadwinners for their families. Culturally speaking, education is not held to be very important to some Iraqi refugees, especially those who originate in rural areas."

UNHCR and its partners are working to counter this mindset and spread awareness about the importance of education and the detrimental consequences of dropping out of school. Community services workers at Caritas and Amel Association UNHCR's main implementing partners in Lebanon distribute financial support to struggling families. They also organize other dropout prevention activities including psychological support, tutoring and after-school activities such as theatre, handcrafts and photography.

"Ever since I fled Iraq I had one thing on my mind: going back to school. I was ready to fight with everything I had for it," said Mustapha, adding that he was afraid he would forget how to read and write.

UNHCR's partner mobilized funds so Mustapha could pay his school tuition. When he was 16, he enrolled in 5th grade again, juggling school with part-time jobs. "I felt embarrassed that my classmates were only 11 but I just didn't think about it," he said bitterly.

Nibal Sayad, former director of an Amel community centre in Beirut's suburbs, monitored his case closely. "Instead of leaving at five in the afternoon like everyone else, I stayed until eight at the centre tutoring Mustapha. His overall average went from 6/20 during his first term to 10/20 during his last, a great achievement for someone in his situation."

Still, for Mustapha, as with many Iraqi refugees, going to a Lebanese school poses a number of problems. "Schools in Lebanon use a different dialect and curricula. I am also often treated as an outsider," he said.

Refugees often face hostile and discouraging attitudes in the school environment. To address this problem, UNHCR and its partners increased the number of recreational activities targeting refugees and their Lebanese neighbours who often share similar vulnerabilities and needs to improve refugees' inclusion in the Lebanese community.

For Nibal Sayad, there is no doubt that Mustapha will pass the Brevet, a national exam mandatory for entry into high school. "Mustapha is a very special young man," she said. "His little sisters would be clinging to his legs while he finished his homework and I have never heard so much as a complaint from him. I am confident he will make it in his Brevet."

By Dana Sleiman in Beirut, Lebanon

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

UNHCR country pages

Iraq Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Iraq.

Donate to this crisis

CAR Crisis: Urgent Appeal

Make a gift now to help protect and assist those fleeing violence in Central African Republic.

Donate to this crisis

Education

Education is vital in restoring hope and dignity to young people driven from their homes.

DAFI Scholarships

The German-funded Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative provides scholarships for refugees to study in higher education institutes in many countries.

Chad: Education in Exile

UNHCR joins forces with the Ministry of Education and NGO partners to improve education for Sudanese refugees in Chad.

The ongoing violence in Sudan's western Darfur region has uprooted two million Sudanese inside the country and driven some 230,000 more over the border into 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Although enrolment in the camp schools in Chad is high, attendance is inconsistent. A shortage of qualified teachers and lack of school supplies and furniture make it difficult to keep schools running. In addition, many children are overwhelmed by household chores, while others leave school to work for local Chadian families. Girls' attendance is less regular, especially after marriage, which usually occurs by the age of 12 or 13. For boys and young men, attending school decreases the possibility of recruitment by various armed groups operating in the area.

UNHCR and its partners continue to provide training and salaries for teachers in all 12 refugee camps, ensuring a quality education for refugee children. NGO partners maintain schools and supply uniforms to needy students. And UNICEF is providing books, note pads and stationary. In August 2007 UNHCR, UNICEF and Chad's Ministry of Education joined forces to access and improve the state of education for Sudanese uprooted by conflict in Darfur.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Chad: Education in Exile

Education for Displaced Colombians

UNHCR works with the government of Colombia to address the needs of children displaced by violence.

Two million people are listed on Colombia's National Register for Displaced People. About half of them are under the age of 18, and, according to the Ministry of Education, only half of these are enrolled in school.

Even before displacement, Colombian children attending school in high-risk areas face danger from land mines, attacks by armed groups and forced recruitment outside of schools. Once displaced, children often lose an entire academic year. In addition, the trauma of losing one's home and witnessing extreme violence often remain unaddressed, affecting the child's potential to learn. Increased poverty brought on by displacement usually means that children must work to help support the family, making school impossible.

UNHCR supports the government's response to the educational crisis of displaced children, which includes local interventions in high-risk areas, rebuilding damaged schools, providing school supplies and supporting local teachers' organizations. UNHCR consults with the Ministry of Education to ensure the needs of displaced children are known and planned for. It also focuses on the educational needs of ethnic minorities such as the Afro-Colombians and indigenous people.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Education for Displaced Colombians

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa RefugeesPlay video

Lebanon: UN Agency Chiefs Visit Bekaa Refugees

The heads of UNHCR and the UN Development Programme visited Syrian refugees and joint projects in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. High Commissioner António Guterres said that the Syria crisis had become the worst humanitarian tragedy of our times.
Iraq: Breaking BreadPlay video

Iraq: Breaking Bread

Shareef fled to Iraq a year ago to escape the violence in Syria. He opened a bakery, which has done great business. When he heard about a new wave of displacement in northern Iraq in August, he decided to help those in need by providing bread.
Iraq: Moving to a New Camp in KhankePlay video

Iraq: Moving to a New Camp in Khanke

A new camp for displaced people is taking shape in the village of Khanke in Iraq's Kurdistan region, with the help of UNHCR and its partners. After weeks of uncomfortable living in the courtyard of an old public building, Chenar and her ethnic Yazidi family are looking forward to moving to the new facility.