Having lain empty and silent since it was occupied and then abandoned during Lebanon’s civil war, the halls of this large school by the sea near the town of Sidon are once more filled with playful commotion, thanks to the presence of hundreds of excited Syrian refugee children.
They are here to attend summer school, thanks to an initiative of the Marist and De La Salle Brothers – two Catholic institutes that promote education. Known as the “Fratelli project”, it offers activities and learning to around 1,000 children during the summer and winter breaks.
“Coming to this school makes us very happy. We play and make new friends instead of staying at home all summer,” explained nine-year-old Syrian refugee Mousa. Many of the children who attend the classes live in nearby informal refugee settlements, and are not enrolled in formal education during the rest of the year.
The project was launched in 2016 by Brother Miquel Cubeles, a Marist from Barcelona, and Brother Andrés Porras Gutiérrez, a De La Salle brother from Mexico. Their idea was inspired by a message from Pope Francis to go beyond borders and “reach out to everyone, in particular those who live in the peripheries of existence.”
"Coming to this school makes us happy."
Miquel and Andrés came to Lebanon in 2015 to see the refugee situation for themselves. The following year they visited shelters housing Syrian refugees in Sidon, and learned about the abandoned former Marist school in the nearby town of Rmeileh. With funds from Europe, the school was renovated and given a new lease of life as part of the Fratelli project.
Seeking to promote a family spirit in all their projects and educational programs, the brothers went out and met refugee parents and encouraged them to send their children to the centre. The project received support from the Lebanese Ministry of Education, and in just three years the centre’s summer and winter programs have boomed.
‘”When we officially started we had only 60 kids. Now we have around 1,000 students,” said Reem Bazzan, Program Coordinator at Fratelli.
The centre runs two shifts. The first one starts at 8.30 a.m. and the second at midday. School busses pick up and drop off the kids. As well as providing a fun distraction, the project also offers a possible route back into formal education.
"If it wasn't for this school... we would be sitting at home."
“We try to teach them at the centre until the ministry of education is able to integrate them back into formal schools. So instead of keeping them in the house or in the streets, we bring them here, and when the time is ready we send them to formal schools,” Bazzan explained.
Lebanon is currently home to 924,000 registered Syrian refugees, of which some 488,000 are children of school age (3-18 years). Thanks to recent efforts by the Lebanese government and humanitarian actors, the number of refugee children enrolled in compulsory basic education has risen to 58 per cent, but that still leaves huge numbers out of school.
Many of the older children experienced conflict back in Syria, while those of all ages often live in difficult conditions in Lebanon with limited access to the types of activities and facilities available at the school. For them, the centre offers an important respite.
“Fratellii is the most beautiful thing in our life,” said Syrian refugee Aya. “If it wasn’t for this school, we wouldn’t study and play. We would be sitting at home,” added 10-year-old Shahd from Damascus.
The non-profit organization designs the programme to meet the children’s needs, promoting personal development and social and educational inclusion. As well as sports and handicrafts, subjects include basic education in English and Arabic, IT and life skills, as well as psychosocial support activities.
The clear favourite among the children, however, is a daily show called ‘’Ticko and Ticka’’.
‘’Every day, we travel through the play Ticko and Ticka to a new country to solve a problem,’’ explained 9-year-old Syrian refugee Aya. The play is performed by Bazzan and other volunteers, who use a time machine to travel to different periods in history.
Bazzan says she can see the positive effects of the centre, and her work there, reflected in the faces of the children around her. “I am changing lives every day. I am helping these kids to be who they want to be, even for a little while.”