Ziad owned a restaurant and a market in Syria, but was forced to leave it behind when the war started and he was kidnapped, tortured, and ransomed back to his family. He and his family left for Lebanon, where they seek an education for refugee children despite hunger, poverty and discrimination. All photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps.
The heat is stifling between the plastic walls of the room where Ziad stands. A rotating fan provides little relief from the hot, dry air.
A half circle of children is seated before him, each waiting cross-legged on the thin rugs that cover the concrete floor, with a blue notebook and a pencil placed neatly on their lap.
One plant, the fan, a couple of teddy bears and a whiteboard procured especially for these lessons decorate the small, modest room.
Paying no mind to the warmth, when Ziad asks a question, a cluster of small, eager hands shoot into the air. Class is in session today — and the children are hungry to participate.
There is just one thing: Ziad isn’t a teacher. This isn’t even a school.
This class is taking place in the main room of Ziad’s tent in an informal settlement in eastern Lebanon, where a couple hundred Syrian refugee families are trying to eek out a living in a setting ripe with hunger, poverty and discrimination.
As refugees, Ziad’s kids don’t have access to formal schooling. And, of all the challenges Ziad’s family is facing, this is the one he is most dogged to overcome.
“I just want one thing in this world,” he says, looking at his 7-year-old son, Simon, “only one thing. I don’t want anything else. That you and your siblings go to school and graduate and have a better life.”
Refugees face steep challenges in Lebanon
Over a million Syrians have flooded Lebanon since the start of the crisis in Syria, taking shelter in cities, neglected buildings and informal settlements, wherever they can find cover of some sort to protect them.
The settlement where Ziad lives lies at the end of a long, dusty, dirt road in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, the country’s agricultural epicenter.
Here, surrounded by farmland, hundreds of Syrian refugees fleeing war have occupied a compound of small, abandoned cinder block buildings. A tangle of makeshift tents like Ziad’s — concrete pads with tarps and blankets for walls — fill the spaces in between, housing the overflow of families seeking refuge.
Mercy Corps provides water and sanitation support, and is helping make rudimentary shelters safer and more livable. But, still, life here is difficult: hunger, unemployment and stress are constants for nearly everyone.
Only around half of primary school-age Syrian children in Lebanon are enrolled in formal education. And, in the Bekaa Valley, attendance is even lower: 36 percent.
Despite the government’s efforts to include Syrian youth in the public education system, obstacles like transportation fees, safety concerns, language barriers and discrimination keep many children from enrolling.
Living in poverty, and without access to school or other safe spaces to grow and develop, countless young refugees are fated to sit idle in their shelters or work to support their families.
Too often, there simply isn’t anything else for them to do.
Why education is critical for refugee children
But as his settlement’s “shaweesh” (its informal leader), Ziad feels a great responsibility to care for the men, women and children living here. It’s the Syrian way, he says.
And so, when the public school his bright and curious son Simon was attending in Lebanon ran out of space for him last year, Ziad didn’t waver. He decided to teach lessons himself.
And not just for his son, but for all the children in his settlement who were missing out on their education.
“The first thing I taught them was the alphabet, how to read, and how to write,” Ziad says. “Something very, very important so their generation is not completely lost.”
“I also teach them the seasons, all the basic things. And I try my best to revive their memories of what they have learned in Syria, so they don’t forget.”
In an environment without structure and opportunity, the school sessions Ziad hosts in his tent provide a small amount of hope and security.
Only half of young refugees attend primary school around the world. Only 25 percent are enrolled in secondary school. And a dismal 1 percent have access to education beyond that.
But, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), education during displacement is vital. It can promote social cohesion, support emotional healing, offer safety and prepare young people to rebuild their communities and pursue productive lives.
It can also foster peace: The Global Partnership for Education states the risk of a young person engaging in violent conflict is reduced by 20 percent for every year of education attained.
Ziad sees first-hand what is at stake and is desperate to instill in his children a different destiny.
“If they live in this depression, this darkness, this will reflect when they’re adults,” he says. “Right now, we are in a state of war. They might hear things, they might see things that would affect them negatively. They might become violent when they grow up.”
“So in giving them this hope, in telling them that life has its ups and downs … it’s going to give them an effort so they can do something in their future.”
Breeding hope, one lesson at a time
Since starting his school, Ziad can’t walk through the slapdash streets of the settlement without collecting a pack of kids, blue notebooks in hand and ready to learn, on his way.
He has somehow managed to secure markers, pens and other basic supplies, and hosts class twice a week from the main room of his tent.
Traditional lessons range from Arabic and arithmetic, to the seasons, the nutritional value of oranges and the difference between a river and the sea.
“I don’t really have a curriculum, but I try my best to keep them learning, to keep teaching them something, so they are always learning something,” Ziad says.
For his students, he has become an anchor in an otherwise volatile existence, and the close attention he gives to them is just as valuable as the academic lessons he offers.
By encouraging the children to draw, Ziad is able to find out what they’re thinking about and how they’re feeling, making it a point to engage those who are reliving traumatic memories.
“I have children who draw their houses in war situations, like war planes and people dying,” he says. "[The drawings] help me understand the person I am dealing with.”
If today is a bad day, he tells the kids, tomorrow will be better. Some days you will be happy, like when you go to a wedding, and some days you will be sad, like when you go to a funeral. You just have to trust that you will be OK in the end.
“The importance is not just teaching subjects, but teaching hope,” he says. “If you don’t give children hope, it’s the same as losing a whole generation, because this is all they have. The future is all they have.”
How we help send refugee kids to class
Mercy Corps strives to ensure young refugees don’t lose their futures to conflict. We build temporary learning spaces and distribute school supplies for kids who have been displaced from their schools and communities.
We work to ensure the most vulnerable children, like those with disabilities, have transportation and resources to continue their education.
And our youth centers and child-friendly spaces give children living in displacement camps and host communities safe places to heal, learn and develop new skills. Learn more: A brighter future starts with an education.
How you can help
When violence first erupted in Juba in December 2013, Mercy Corps immediately launched an emergency response to provide hygiene items, mosquito nets and other necessities. Today we are providing clean water and hand-washing stations to prevent the spread of disease, training teachers so children can continue to learn, and implementing cash-for-work programs to restore markets and dignity to families affected by the crisis. See additional photos below.
South Sudan should be a country full of hope five years after gaining independence. Instead, it is in the grip of a massive, man-made humanitarian crisis.
Political conflict has caused massive displacement, raging violence and dire food shortages. Over 5 million people are in need of aid, and more than 6 million are facing severe hunger. Despite the lack of international assistance, Mercy Corps is working with the brave people of South Sudan to address urgent needs and promote resilience throughout the country.
When did the crisis start?South Sudan gained independence from Sudan in July 2011, but the hard-won celebration was short-lived. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the ruling political party that originally led the way for independence, is now divided and fighting for power.
In December 2013, political infighting erupted into violence in the streets of the capital, Juba, after South Sudan’s president accused his vice president of an attempted coup. Fighting between the two factions of government forces loyal to each soon moved to Bor, and then to Bentiu.
Violence spread across the young nation like wildfire, displacing 413,000 civilians in just the first month of conflict. Tens of thousands of civilians rushed to seek refuge in U.N. bases that were subsequently turned into makeshift displacement camps.
The fighting has continued, becoming increasingly brutal and affecting nearly the entire country.
What's going on now?A handful of peace agreements have been signed over the course of the war — the most recent in August 2015 — but they have been repeatedly violated. The situation remains highly unstable.
While some regions have recently become slightly less volatile, allowing people to move around fairly freely and return to their homes, violent outbreaks are still occurring throughout the country.
In February 2016, the U.N. displacement site in Malakal was attacked, killing 25 people and wounding over 120 more. Regions that previously had been relatively safe from clashes have experienced assaults over the past several weeks.
And, most recently, a fresh wave of violence erupted in Juba starting July 8, 2016, just one day before the country's five-year anniversary of independence. The clashes killed more than 300 people over the course of a few days and could push the young nation back into deep chaos.
On top of these unpredictable attacks, the country's economy is in crisis — the South Sudanese pound has declined in value, and the cost of goods and services has skyrocketed. Food prices are at a record high.
What's happening to people in South Sudan?Since the conflict began, 1 in 5 people in South Sudan have been displaced. More than 2.3 million citizens have been forced to flee their homes. Just over 720,000 people have escaped to neighboring countries in search of safety, but most are trapped inside the warring nation.
Those who’ve run have lost loved ones and their homes, their land and their livelihoods. Violence toward civilians has been widespread, including targeted attacks, kidnappings and murders. And assaults on aid convoys and looting of supplies have become increasingly common, making it difficult — and dangerous — to reach in-need families with the support they need to survive.
In the country's most conflict-ridden areas, 70 percent of schools have been closed due to the fighting. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of young ones are facing an uncertain future.
Ongoing violence continues to keep people from their homes, damage markets and disrupt planting, all of which keeps families from getting the food they need to survive. Around 6 million people are currently at risk of going hungry.
Why did the humanitarian situation deteriorate so quickly?
After decades of conflict, South Sudan was and still is one of the least-developed countries in the world, which has further complicated the situation. The larger cities in South Sudan had experienced some development, but the majority of the nation is rural. Even before the crisis, more than half of its citizens lived in absolute poverty, were dependent on subsistence agriculture and suffered from malnourishment. Many people were already refugees and were only beginning to resettle and rebuild their homes. Because the economy was already fragile before fighting began, people have very few resources to help them survive the long-term conflict and displacement they're faced with. In addition, the country has very little formal infrastructure — roads, buses, buildings — which makes it difficult to transport food and supplies. Many towns and villages become inaccessible during the annual rainy season due to closed airstrips, washed out roads or lack of roads altogether, sometimes limiting any delivery of humanitarian aid to the isolated areas that need it most.
Where have people fled to?
Just over 720,000 people have crossed into neighboring countries including Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Inside South Sudan, 1.6 million people are displaced. The crowded U.N. displacement sites are frequently depicted in news about the crisis, but the truth is only a small fraction of those who’ve escaped the violence reside in these camps. The majority of displaced families live outside the camps, wherever they can find safe shelter — often in small villages that offer some security, tucked away from the main areas of fighting. For some living in the most violent areas, there is no other choice but to flee into the bush with what little they can carry with them.
What is life like in camps?
While there may be relative safety in the six U.N. camps, the conditions there are dire. The bases were not designed to host this many people for so long. Proper sanitation, hygiene and waste disposal are inadequate in such crowded conditions, and heavy seasonal rains flood many of the camps, making things even worse. In some camps, flooding has collapsed newly-built latrines, forcing people to walk through knee-high water that is contaminated with sewage. There have been reports of mothers sleeping standing up, holding their children, because there is nowhere clean to rest. In December 2015, the World Health Organization called South Sudan one of the worst health emergencies in the world.
What are the most urgent needs in the camps?
Displaced families receive some food, but there are urgent needs for additional food and disease prevention through better sanitation and access to clean water.
Is South Sudan getting enough assistance?
The short answer: no. The U.N. appealed for $1.6 billion to assist 4.6 million people in need in 2015, but the effort was only 62 percent funded. So far only 39 percent of the $1.29 billion requested for 2016 has been funded. Many humanitarian organizations, including Mercy Corps, are partnering with the U.N., using both private contributions and funding from the international community, to address the urgent needs of innocent people in South Sudan.
How Mercy Corps is providing urgent assistance:
Mercy Corps is working to provide desperately-needed latrines, showers, hand-washing stations and clean water to help people survive and prevent the spread of disease in camps and communities. To help prevent outbreaks, better sanitation, and clean water are critical. Building latrines and teaching proper hygiene and waste disposal are the best ways to ensure that water sources stay clean for people to drink, cook and bathe. In the small villages where many people are sheltering, we have rehabilitated living spaces, provided seeds and tools so people can grow food wherever they are living, and implemented cash-for-work programs to give vulnerable families some money to purchase supplies. We're also distributing emergency funds to help traders and families access goods in hard-hit areas of the country. And our emergency education program trains teachers and provides school supplies so children can continue learning despite this crisis. But the needs of displaced families in South Sudan are increasing, and your support is allowing us to do even more.
How you can help:
The people of this young country need our help, and among the world’s other crises, we must not forget them. We are working on the ground to reach families who are struggling to survive — but our lifesaving work starts with you.
Mercy Corps joined other international organizations, world leaders and private sector copmanies for the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit to address a humanitarian system that is no longer capable of meeting exponentially growing needs in a world facing a confluence of displacement, crisis and fragility. Sami, a 15 year-old Syrian refugee, joined Mercy Corps to provide a first-hand account of his experience as a refugee. All photos: Peter Biro for Mercy Corps.
Sami was nervous at first, but his voice grew steady as he described how he fled his home in Aleppo to start a new life in Gaziantep, Turkey.
“We had to leave everything behind and say goodbye to the city we love,” he said. “At first, I wasn’t sad because I did not realize that we would not be returning, and I didn’t know how hard it would be. It was difficult for me to start a new life in this city – I missed my home, I often felt alone, and it was difficult to make new friends."
At 15, Sami was the youngest of five youth panelists who participated in a side event at the World Humanitarian Summit, “Empowering Youth Affected by the Syria Crisis,” co-organized by Mercy Corps, UNICEF, and other partners of the No Lost Generation initiative. The goal of the event was to give young people an opportunity to engage directly with the decision-makers who are creating programs to respond to the needs of Syrian refugee youth and adolescents.
The 200-person room was packed. In attendance were several high-level figures who joined the panel discussion to respond directly to concerns the youth expressed, including Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director, Hikmet Eskan, CEO of Western Union, Baroness Verma, Undersecretary for DFID, and Bekir Gür, senior advisor to the Turkish Minister of Education.
Yet you could have heard a pin drop as we listened to their powerful stories. They spoke of violence and bullying in schools, early marriage, child labor, families being displaced and separated, and their enormous struggles to access education.
“I dropped out of school because I was bullied by kids who thought I didn’t belong in their school and beaten by teachers who thought this was the only way to teach us how to behave,” said Ahmed, 17, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee now living in Lebanon, and another member of the youth panel.
At the same time, their determination, empathy, talent and humor was uplifting and energizing – and highlighted the potential of this young generation to build a better future for themselves and their families.
Why focus on teens?
Adolescence is a critical stage of development. Living through trauma and upheaval during this time period has placed Syrian youth and adolescents at a crossroads.
Before the war, more than 70 percent of Syrian adolescents were enrolled in secondary school, and 95 percent of the country could read. With the Syria crisis now well into its sixth year, UNICEF estimates that half of Syrian children, roughly 2.6 million, are not accessing education opportunities across Syria and the region.
Read our report: Age of Unrest: Syrian Refugee Youth at the Crossroads
In a 2015 survey, more than half of Syrian refugee children in Turkey had witnessed someone get attacked or shot at; even more had experienced a death in the family. Almost half already showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
This side event at the World Humanitarian Summit was organized as part of the No Lost Generation initiative, a combined effort of United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations and international donors to ensure that the 4 million Syrian and other vulnerable children and youth in the region have the chance to learn, recover, and contribute to their communities.
It also was a chance to show youth not as the problem, but rather the solution; it demonstrated positive power of youth and the critical role young people play in enabling the countries where they live to thrive.
Tackling the trauma of the Syrian crisis
Mercy Corps programs are built to tap the positive power of youth. Through our adolescent programs in Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, we are helping young people develop the skills and characteristics that will help them long into the future, such as empathy, critical thinking skills, the ability to set short- and long-term goals, as well as form healthy relationships and create community projects that promote non-violence.
Sami participated in Mercy Corps’ Smart Art program, which brings together Syrian and Turkish youth to design and create murals throughout the city of Gaziantep. The goal is to build social cohesion and reduce conflict between Syrian and Turkish youth through art projects.
Sami said the Smart Art program helped him feel motivated. Learn more about Sami
“Even though Syrian youth have faced a lot of challenges, we can do a lot to reach our goals,” he said. “Yes, we want to return to our country, but we also want to feel accepted in our community here.”
Ahmed, the Palestinian-Syrian refugee who dropped out of school in Lebanon, highlighted the need for informal education opportunities.
“When I signed up at Mercy Corps’ Bussma Center, I started classes in English and computers and car repair, and made a lot of friends. We stopped looking at our nationalities and started concentrating on our commonalities,” he said.
At the end, the audience left with a new understanding that young Syrians can be engines for growth and prosperity in the countries of their exile – and a promise of reconciliation and reconstruction when Syria finally sees peace.
As a global community, we must not only include adolescents in meaningful dialogue about their needs and aspirations, but also engage them as partners.