With generous funding from donors like Japan, UNHCR supports community development centres across the country to offer refugees a safe place to learn, communicate, unwind and share experiences.
BEKAA, Lebanon, November 2017 – On a brisk autumn day in Lebanon’s Bekaa region, a group of young Syrian children gather in class watching a Tom and Jerry cartoon. At first glance, they appear to be ordinary pre-teens, but this is no ordinary classroom.
The young Syrians in this special class are ‘street children’ who spend most of their days working on Lebanon’s streets trying to help support their families. Some 30 minutes earlier, the children were being given an awareness session on early marriage.
“It’s a tough subject but it’s very important to talk to them about it,” says Ayat, who has been teaching at Al-Marj Community Development Centre for two years.
“We teach them about hygiene and personal safety, how to protect themselves on the street and what to do in case of abuse. We teach them how to differentiate between right and wrong and how violence is unacceptable.”
Community Development Centres (CDCs) offer a wide array of services, including trainings, learning activities, awareness sessions, and psychosocial support. These services are available not only to refugees, but also to Lebanese wishing to access the CDCs.
The children who come to Al-Marj CDC, which is run by UNHCR’s partner Intersos, also learn basic literacy. They learn how to spell their names in Arabic and English and how to read street signs.
“When they first come here, it’s complete chaos. They can’t even sit still. Slowly, they learn and change a great deal,” says Haneen Taha, a senior social worker at the centre. “This is their safe space. Many children tell their parents that they are out selling things on the street, but they come here instead,” Taha notes.
Al-Marj CDC is one of three such centres in the Bekaa that are supported by funding from the Government of Japan. A generous contribution from Japan has allowed UNHCR to continue providing protection and assistance through CDCs and other community mobilization activities in Lebanon, benefitting up to 27,000 refugees in 2017. Ten-year-old Doaa’ is one of them.
Originally from Homs in Syria, the young refugee used to come to Al-Marj CDC barefoot and wearing torn clothes. While her sister is already married at the age of 12, Doaa’ insists on going to the CDC where she has developed a special relationship with her teacher Ayat, whom she confides in.
“Doaa’ is one of the smartest girls here, and she has changed a lot since she joined the centre,” says Ayat who is trying to encourage the girl to go to school. “Even if only one in ten goes on to school, it would be a huge success for us.”
In another classroom, Rana, 10, is learning how to write numbers in English. “I love learning. And I love the way they treat me here,” says Rana, who fled from Aleppo, Syria. She wants to become a doctor when she grows up, so she can “help the poor and the sick.”
She has been attending classes at Al-Marj CDC for six months alongside her 13-year-old brother Khalil.
“If I get lost, at least now I can read the signs and find my way back home,” remarks Khalil.
These children, and thousands of other refugees and Lebanese of all ages, have a safe place to go to, be it for learning new skills or simply participating in recreational activities to momentarily escape their hard lives. This was made possible through generous funding from countries such as Japan, which is one of the largest donors to UNHCR globally.
Many of the refugees who come to the CDCs around the country have spent six or so years in Lebanon, waiting for the situation in Syria to improve, so they can return in safety and dignity.
“During this long wait, it is so important for these individuals to be able to thrive, and not just survive, and use their time in temporary exile in a meaningful way to build their human capital and transferable skills,” says Karolina Lindholm Billing, UNHCR’s Deputy Representative for Protection.
“The CDCs offer a protective environment in which they can do that.”