Literacy classes open new doors for Syrian women in Lebanon

Volunteer Fatima Al Obeid launched classes for refugee parents eager to help their children with their homework.

Syrian mothers learn to read and write at a literacy class in ​​Fnaydek, Lebanon.

Fatima Al Obeid stands before a whiteboard and writes the Arabic letter “b”. She calls on a student to write the word “beit,” Arabic for “house."

However, her pupils are not children but adult women. Twice a week, she teaches Syrian refugee mothers and grandmothers how to read and write their native language. For most, it is their first time in a classroom. In Syria, they did not have the opportunity to attend school.

The literacy classes for women emerged from their desire to help their children better integrate into Lebanon, where they have lived since they left Syria at the start of the conflict. Many wanted to help their children with their homework and to read the Koran. Also, they wanted greater independence in their new country.

Fatima, 31, had been taking a degree course in Arabic literature in the Syrian city of Homs when fighting forced her family to seek safety in Lebanon five years ago. Since then, her three young children have started attending a Lebanese school.

After hearing many Syrian refugee parents express embarrassment at not being able to help their children with their homework, she took matters into her own hands. Earlier this year, she decided to start a basic adult literacy class in her community of Fnaydek, in northern Lebanon. She focuses on mothers, since they spend more time at home with their children after school

“It's such a nice feeling when you see your students improving before your eyes," says Fatima, who has volunteered as a teacher since February. "When I started teaching them, they were uncomfortable and upset, since some of them could not even hold a pen properly."

"But here, even if we speak the same language, this country is not ours … We are foreigners"

Classes are held partly in Arabic and partly in French. At least 15 women attend each session. They range in age from 17 to the mid-60s, and two have developmental disabilities. Enrolment is free, and UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and the international charity Save the Children provide books and other classroom materials.

The women take great pride in being able to support their children with their homework. At least 194,000 Syrian children are enrolled in state primary schools in Lebanon, according to the Ministry of Education. Most attend the "second shift", special afternoon classes for Syrian refugees.

"My five children are all in school from grades one to six," says 44-year-old Ghalia Ahmed Ezzeiddine. "And I am in grade one, too."

Like many of her fellow students, Ghalia says she did not see the value of education for herself until she became a refugee. In Syria, it was less necessary to be able to read and write, she says. People gave directions using local landmarks and important news was passed on by word of mouth.

"But here, even if we speak the same language, this country is not ours,” she says of Lebanon. “We are foreigners. If I get a text message from UNHCR or another organization, I want to be able to read it. If my child asks me about her lessons, I want to be able to answer her."

The first few weeks of class were difficult and several of the women felt overwhelmed. To make matters worse, some faced criticism from their husbands and fellow villagers.

"The most encouraging moment for me was the first time I read the name of the neighbouring village on a sign.”

"Some husbands would say, 'Why? You're old now. You don't need that'," Fatima explains.

Nevertheless, she encouraged them to ignore the critics. She coached them in how to explain to their husbands that their education would benefit the entire family. At least five of her students are widows whose husbands were killed in Syria, and literacy is important to their independence.

Thirty-year-old Fatima Tajeh brings her five-month-old baby to class, taking notes with one hand as she rocks him with the other.

"The most encouraging moment for me was the first time I read the name of the neighbouring village on a sign," she says.

Nearby, her classmate Naisa Al Saleh traces the letter 'b' alongside a list of the week's vocabulary words.

"For me, the most important thing is being able to read the doctor's note for my prescriptions," says Naisa, who is in her mid-60s and lives with her son, his wife, and six grandchildren. "When I get in a taxi, I can recognize the signs so I know where they are taking me. I can rely on myself."

Teacher Fatima beams with pride.

"Day after day, I try to make them stronger," she says. "I try to build their confidence and motivate them by saying, 'When you focus on something you will achieve it no matter what. But if you keep saying you can't do it, you'll never get there'."