MARJAYOUN, Lebanon: Hiam, an 11-year-old Syrian refugee, rushed out of her tent and ran toward a lawn in Marjayoun’s Marj al-Khawkh to approach the Mobile Education Unit. The bus driver honked his horn to salute eager children, while the staff prepared chairs and tables.
The MEU is a bus that carries educational and recreational materials to underprivileged youth in Lebanon. It was launched in March 2017 by the NGO Amel, which seeks to provide development projects to disadvantaged populations in Lebanon.
Kamel Mohanna, head of the organization, told The Daily Star that the decision to launch the MEU project came after surveying the needs of Syrian and Lebanese children. Mohanna said this is not Amel’s first mobile project: The group has launched mobile medical clinics in the past.
“Education defines the future of our Arab societies, especially with around 5 million Arab kids not having access to primary school, according to UNICEF,” Mohanna said. Despite “the tragic situation in the Arab world,” Amel will continue advocating for marginalized people, he added.
According to Amel’s website, about 180,000 Lebanese children and 300,000 Syrian children have not received any education since birth.
The bus travels among refugee camps in southern Lebanon, as well as the Bekaa’s Kamed al-Loz. It continues to operate during the summer, even after the end of the school year.
“This project is for helping Syrian refugees who are having difficulties in school,” said Ahmad Abu al-Aynayn, field coordinator of educational projects at Amel.
He explained that the project complements the education refugees receive and is aligned with Lebanon’s official curriculum.
It also accommodates refugees who cannot afford transportation, he added.
“Lessons concentrate on two sections – the academic section and the psychosocial support section – all year round,” Aynayn said.
He added that although the initial target of the project was to help 800 students, to date there are over 1,200 students in Syrian refugee camps in the Khiam-Marjayoun area who benefit from the initiative.
“We come to the camp twice a week and meet with students, give them classes in Arabic, English [and] math and help them with their homework and in preparing for exams,” he added.
Aynayn said some children have difficulties with foreign languages, while others are still learning how to hold a pen.
Children who were born or grew up in Lebanon were receptive to the official curriculum, he said, but added that this does not necessarily apply to older children who transferred here. Syrian refugee children attend school for five hours a day, Aynayn said, though he expressed belief that this was not enough.
Amel’s efforts are starting to pay off, especially for illiterate children, since the majority of their parents are also illiterate, he added.
He explained that although the organization does not replace school, it remains in contact with local schools to check the academic performance of its students.
Aynayn said the project has provided art therapy, such as painting or acting classes, as part of the project’s psychosocial support component. He added that the MEU and local school staff members also identify students who seem distressed and refer them to a social worker or therapist if needed.
The MEU also gives children lessons in hygiene and raises their awareness around issues related to domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Dona Mekled, a social worker with the organization, said children in refugee camps face many social issues. Some children demonstrate aggressive behavior, she said. Some are married off as minors and others have been subjected to violence or abuse. But through the MEU project, they are provided with tools to address these difficult issues while also receiving a general education.
Fatima al-Hassan, an 11-year-old third-grader from Idlib, said she was learning the multiplication table.
“I am learning how to multiply, add, subtract and divide, and I understand math better,” she said, adding that she hopes to become a schoolteacher in the future.