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