Leaning his small body across the chipped wooden desk at the center of a green-walled classroom, 12-year-old Abed helps explain a mathematical problem to three other students. Abed is a refugee from Syria, and the students are his Syrian and Lebanese classmates at Al Haydariya school in Sarafand, southern Lebanon.
“He is a gifted student,” said his Lebanese professor, Abbas Maanna, standing at the back of the room. “He has logical abilities in math that few students his age have.” Abed’s talent may have gone unnoticed if not for the 26-year-old Lebanese professor, who helped him nurture his skills to become one of the school’s top students.
“I did not like school before,” explained Abed. “I wanted to do well but I hated coming to school. When I met Professor Abbas my life changed.” Abed met Abbas two years ago when the latter joined his school as a fellow with Teach for Lebanon (TFL), a Lebanese NGO, licensed by the ministry of education, and supporting schooling in the country’s underprivileged public and semi-private schools.
TFL trains and employs Lebanon’s top graduates to teach in under-resourced schools around the country. “There is always a gap between the education of private and public schools in Lebanon,” explains Abbas, “TFL wants to create an equality between the two, in terms of resources, teachers, psychological and emotional support to students.”
"When I met Professor Abbas my life changed."
Lebanon hosts some 976,000 registered refugees from the Syria conflict, now in its eighth year. Around 490,000 are children of school age (from three to 18 years old), of whom some 220,000 attend lessons in public schools, either in separate afternoon shifts or in morning classes alongside Lebanese pupils.
Abed is one of the lucky ones, Among refugees globally, the share of children enrolled in education falls far below general enrolment rates, with the gap widening the older they get.
A recent study by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, found that while 61 per cent of refugees attend primary school compared with 92 per cent globally, at secondary level enrolment rates drop to 23 per cent of refugees versus 84 per cent overall.
Through its fellow program, TFL is helping more than 5,000 Lebanese and Syrian students with their schooling. “This is our mission – not to distinguish between students,” Abbas said. “The student can be Palestinian or Syrian or Lebanese. Regardless of nationality or background, we want to shed light on each kid’s capabilities and empower his or her skills.”
In the classroom, Abbas uses interactive tools to teach; songs, videos and group work engage the students with the lesson. “I love his method of teaching, he doesn’t get angry, and he is patient,” said Abed. He credits Abbas with helping to strengthen his self-esteem, develop his math skills and encourage him to help other pupils.
“Some of his classmates were failing in mathematics, but in just two months Abed was able to help them get better grades and this boosted Abed’s self-confidence,” Abbas explained. Abed was also selected to attend two international student conferences, one in India and the other in the US, but was unable to travel due to his refugee status.
The relationship between Abed and Abbas goes beyond the classroom. The Lebanese teacher often visits Abed’s family to chat with his father. “It is very important to have a relationship with the parents because we are dealing with refugee families with needs.”
More than 5.6 million refugees from Syria have sought safety in neighbouring countries in the region, including some 2.6 million children. With many families living in abject poverty, they face a struggle to secure basics such as healthcare and education.
The situation is compounded by a shortfall in funding for UNHCR’s aid programes for Syrians this year. An additional US$270 million is urgently needed to avoid distruption to vital assistance including cash grants, health and shelter activities.
Abed and his family fled Syria at the end of 2011, and now live on a Lebanese farm where his father works hard on the land to make ends meet and educate his children. “I don’t know how to thank him,” said Abed’s father Ahmad of his son’s teacher. “He has had a positive impact on my son.”
"These kids give me hope."
Back at school, Abbas plays football in the courtyard with Abed and his classmates. The students seem fond of a professor who is now more of a friend than just a teacher. “These kids give me hope. Abed taught me that nothing is impossible, that despite difficulties there is always hope to achieve and succeed,” said Abbas.
Abed says he wants to become a scientist, and proudly displays a small cotton candy machine that he made at home. “I learnt from Professor Abbas not to give up and to help others. I dream of going back to Syria one day and making my country proud.”