Eight-year-old Nawfal has impeccable handwriting. But without school, he may soon become part of a lost generation.
I am lucky to have a job that allows me to speak out. It allows me to write this and share it with you. It allows me to speak for those who would otherwise not be heard.
Today, I would like to speak for Nawfal.
Nawfal is just a boy. Two months ago he fled Raqqa, Syria, with much of his family – leaving his father behind. He now lives in an informal settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Like so many thousands of other children here, Nawfal doesn’t go to school.
He tugs on my sleeve one evening, as I’m walking through one of the country’s 1,417 settlements at sunset. Although it may seem mundane to you, his question stops me in my tracks.
“What’s your book about?” he asks.
I carry this same notepad everywhere I go, but never have I been asked about it.
“This is a notepad,” I tell him, smiling. “I write things in it. Do you want to see?”
He reaches over to touch the words on the page, almost caressing them. “I can’t write in English, but I can write in Arabic,” he says, quietly, as he examines my neat scrawl.
“Can you write me something,” I ask, “so I can remember you every time I read it?”
His face lights up. I am curious to see what he will write – to find out what thoughts are going through his young mind. But then he hesitates. Perhaps he isn’t sure what he should write, or maybe he hasn’t written in such a long time that he is nervous.
I give him the notepad and ask him to write anything he wants. Whatever comes to mind.
His small hand flutters across the page, his face intent. Then he pauses, looks up at me and smiles, as though seeking reassurance, before he carries on writing.
I ask what he misses the most about home. “I miss my school,” he replies. “I’ve never missed a day of school in Syria. I miss my books the most. I miss reading.”
Nawfal is a gentle little boy. In a crowd of rowdy children, he stands back and quietly observes. He doesn’t say much. But I promise you: If you had seen him that day, and if you had the courage to look into his eyes, you would cry just as I did when I got home. I wish you could have seen his eyes and sensed his defeat. When I looked at Nawfal I felt shame. Embarrassment. As human beings, we should never have occasion to see any one of us at such a loss.
Nawfal might be alive – but he is not living. He just exists.
Like the other kids in the settlement, he loiters much of the day. Children play outside amongst the rubbish, open sewers and mud. They have no toys, no playground and nothing to do.
These scattered informal settlements are in no way dignified. UNHCR and other agencies try their best to make their living conditions better – by providing clean water, latrines and other basic assistance, such as weather-proofing kits to help strengthen the tents, especially during winter. However, as these settlements are not properly planned or managed, they offer less-than-adequate living conditions. The smell of sewage lingers in the air. It is almost suffocating. Flies swarm over heaps of rubbish, and the ground is muddy following heavy rain.
Despite the tough circumstances, Nawfal and his family are now safe in Lebanon. They are some of the 3.3 million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR in the region. But, what scares me is how used we are getting to these numbers going up. We cannot let our collective conscience rest simply because these people got out of Syria safe and sound. These people are stuck in limbo. They have few opportunities in exile. Hundreds of thousands of children are out of school. Countless families have depleted their savings, and parents are struggling to make a living.
Nawfal and his family struggle every day. Couldn’t Nawfal be any one of us? Your son, or maybe your little brother? None of what is happening is his fault. He wants to go to school and read books. He doesn’t want to be here. Like anybody, Nawfal has dreams.
I will never be able to capture the innocence of this kid, the purity in his smile and the joy on his face as he holds my pen and writes. In Lebanon alone, over 200,000 children are out of school. Almost four years into the Syria crisis and with no end in sight, I’m scared that this sweet little boy will never get to go back home. I’m scared that he will forget how to write.
Today, I carry with me the words of Nawfal as a reminder of why we do the work we do, and a reminder of how much more the world needs to do.
My name is Nawfal.
I want to be in school.
I love school so much.
I want to go back to Syria.
I want to see my family in Syria.
Daddy, I won’t forget you.
His words will stay with me forever. A painful memory of a child robbed of his childhood.
Page 1 of 8
Afghan refugee in Greece achieves secondary school scholarship opportunity in the United States15 Sep 2021
“We need to think outside the box…because you learn more things outside the box. It’s like a cage, you need to be a free bird” says Arezu, an incredibly talented and eloquent Afghan refugee of just 12-years-old, currently living on Lesvos island in Greece. This week is the return to […]
The volunteer ‘Foster Teachers’ who fight for the “invisible” children14 Sep 2021
The start of a new school year is usually filled with joy and anticipation. When a child that reached Greece as an unaccompanied minor manages to register and attend school, this sense of joy is shared between many people: the children themselves, their relatives living far away, and the people […]
As global displacement increases, almost half of school aged refugee children globally remain out of school7 Sep 2021
Despite the challenges in accessing education, Syrian refugee mother of four living on Chios island is hopeful for the future of her four young children.
“Victim’s Voices Lead the Way” on World Day Against Trafficking in Persons30 Jul 2021
“Without freedom you are nothing, you are not a human being. But if you have freedom, you can do anything for yourself” says Emma*, an asylum seeker from Sierra Leone, currently on the Greek island of Lesvos. Emma is 25 years old. She left Sierra Leone fearing for her life […]
Refugee Convention: Commemorating 70 years of a life-saving treaty28 Jul 2021
By Mireille Girard, UNHCR Representative in Greece
Survey demonstrates the potential of refugees and asylum-seekers on the Greek islands15 Jul 2021
In their search for safety, refugees have left their homes and possessions behind, though the skills and work-experience they bring represent significant economic potential for receiving countries like Greece, a new study highlights. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, has published a report on the education, skills and work experience of […]
From Lesvos to Germany: A new life for Ruqiya and her child5 Jul 2021
Ruqiya checks her mobile phone every five minutes. Her children promised to send her photos of the Sunday lunch that their grandmother would prepare. A salad with carrots and yoghurt, and mackerel with hot paprika – Ruqiya’s favourite meal. But she cannot sit around the table with them. For the […]
Giving back kindness: Abdoulaye supports medical services for refugees on Lesvos22 Jun 2021
Growing up in Cameroon, Abdoulaye Amadou was a mover and shaker, studying business management at university, earning a bachelor’s degree and then opening a rice import business. As his business prospered, he moved to the western part of the country, but then, he says, he and his family landed in […]
Young teen found new home through sport20 Jun 2021
A group of teenagers warming up on the turf at the Panthessaliko stadium pauses to watch a young man who suddenly darts down the track. Every afternoon, Ahmad Nadeem undertakes his daily training routine until the sun sets on the stadium in Volos city in central Greece. The 400-meter distance […]
World Refugee Day 2021: Steps19 Jun 2021
On World Refugee Day, commemorated every year on June 20, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, calls us through its new video to take a step. Even a small step, which can make us a team. Even a small step can make us a team. Even a small step can bring […]