Perched at the top of a stairwell outside their family’s small apartment just north of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, Syrian sisters Taqla and Sara Kalloumeh sit bent over their schoolbooks, still wearing their blue uniforms long after lessons have ended for the day.
The stairwell is the only place they could find with enough space and seclusion for them to study – just one example of their determination to overcome the odds and achieve academic success.
Both girls were keen students back in their hometown of Maaloula, an Aramaic-speaking community some 50 kilometres northeast of the Syrian capital, Damascus. But when the country’s conflict reached their door in 2013, the sisters fled with their family and arrived in neighbouring Lebanon as refugees.
Aware of their situation, a local Lebanese man offered to cover the fees for them to attend the Armenian Catholic Holy Cross School in Zalka. This puts them among the minority in Lebanon, where a report last year on refugee education by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency found that just 40 per cent of school-aged Syrian refugee children (3-18) are currently enrolled in formal education.
“We were top students [back in Syria],” explains 14-year-old Sara. “We didn’t want to leave school, we wanted to continue our education, so I thank God for sending us someone who helped us continue our education here.”
As well as adapting to the unfamiliar Lebanese school curriculum, the sisters have also made great efforts to learn English, French and Armenian. School Principal Reita Boyajian says their aptitude and application quickly became apparent.
“Within a year we saw how these two students are very different and special. They became top students in all subjects,” she says. “I think that if they hadn’t made it here, if they had stayed under the shelling [in Syria], or if they arrived here but couldn’t enroll in a school and continue their education, we as a community – not only Lebanese or Armenian, but as a world community – would have lost a lot.”
Boyajian hopes that if the sisters continue to excel in their studies and do well in their exams, they will be able to secure scholarships to attend university in Lebanon or abroad. Elder sister Taqla, 15, already has her sights on a degree that will enable her to help with the reconstruction effort in Syria once they are able to return.
“I would like to be a civil engineer. I want to finish my education here and go back to Syria to work and build houses,” she says. “’I would like to tell those who are watching me that school is everything and despite the difficulties you may face, you must be stronger. Don’t give up. Face everything, because you are the only ones who will build your own future.”