BEIRUT — It is recess time at the Frans van der Lugt Center in Beirut's northeastern suburb of Burj Hammoud in Lebanon.
Chums chat, some walking arm in arm, while others joyfully chase each other, screeching. A teacher notices a young boy sitting alone against the wall. She stoops down, encouraging him to join his classmates. Moments later, he is happily playing with other boys.
Named for the Dutch Jesuit priest who was shot dead in April 2014 in the besieged Syrian city of Homs, the school is for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, a project of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), an international Catholic organization with a mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons.
For some of the children, it is their first time ever attending school. Most have missed out on years of education due to the conflict in Syria, now in its fifth year.
The tiny country of Lebanon, roughly the size of Delaware, is hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees. That’s the equivalent of 80 million refugees coming into the United States, stated United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres on April 15. Prior to the onslaught of waves of refugees, Lebanon’s population was around 4 million. Now, roughly one in every four people is a Syrian.
Thousands of Christian Iraqi families have also come to Lebanon since the Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul and the Nineveh Plain last summer. In March, the Office of the U.N. High Commisioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that there were more school-age refugees in Lebanon than the entire intake of the country's public schools.
The Frans van der Lugt Center is located in an old former private school that was no longer in use. JRS spruced up the site with vibrant, welcoming colors and décor.
The half-day program serves 350 students, about 300 of whom are Syrian Muslims and the rest Iraqi Christians. An afternoon session will begin soon to help meet the overwhelming demand for refugees who are missing out on school.
JRS operates two other school programs for refugees: in the coastal city of Byblos towards the north and in the Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border. Together, the three schools provide classes to some 1,000 children who previously had no opportunities for education.
JRS teachers and administration mirror the diversity of the student body: Muslim and Christian, Lebanese and Syrian. Some of the teachers themselves are refugees.
The schools follow an accelerated learning program with a special emphasis on languages — Arabic, French and English — aimed at preparing students for Lebanon’s trilingual education system. In Syria, the curriculum is solely in Arabic.
The Frans van der Lugt Center also offers afternoon tutoring for refugees who are enrolled in other schools. Extracurricular activities include a 40-member soccer team, complete with uniforms donated by Spanish soccer club Atlético Madrid.
Principal Angela Abboche says of her students at the Frans van der Lugt Center, “They need to be educated, but also they need to be loved and to feel that someone is caring for them.”
Aside from being uprooted from their homes, communities, friends and everything that was familiar to them, many of the students have been exposed to horrific violence — bombs, gunfire, killing and barbaric atrocities. Home now is typically a crowded, run-down apartment shared with other refugee families. Most of the families live in Nabaa, an impoverished area nearby the school.
“We see a lot of aggressive behavior, especially with the younger children. What they are living is reflected in school. This is the biggest challenge,” Abboche says. “We try to help them communicate with each other.” She added that the older students are generally calm and help to take care of the younger children.
Elias Elmeouchy, 27, is a mathematics teacher for grades one through three at the Frans van der Lugt Center.
He recalled one of his students, 8-year-old Brahim, who was in a daze “like a ghost” when he first came to the JRS school. “He was very aggressive and used to hit his classmates. Now, he’s very polite and has a zest for learning,” Elmeouchy explained.
“They might be slow in learning sometimes, but you see a sparkle in their eyes,” he said of the students. “They are starting to learn, to understand, to improve, to go further,” he added. “Even though they are bleeding from the inside, they are suffering, they all have a smile on their faces,” he said.
Elmeochy, a Maronite Catholic, considers his work with the refugee students “like a mission.”
“I’m taking care of them; I’m loving them. I’m spreading Jesus’ word without telling them about Jesus directly.”
As she works on a mosaic project in art class, 16-year-old Christina tells the Register, “I’m so happy to continue my education. I can’t imagine my life without learning.” To protect her identity, Christina’s name has been changed.
Back in Qaraqosh, Iraq, Christina was a distinguished student with a 96% average, who was considering studying engineering at university, which is offered by the Iraqi government for free.
But her family’s life was shattered when Islamic State militants descended upon Qaraqosh on Aug. 6, driving out its Christians. “We didn’t take anything with us. We were 13 people in a car,” she said, recalling the exodus of tens of thousands of fellow Christians that night to Erbil in northern Iraq last summer.
By Aug. 16, her family came to Beirut. They have registered with the UNHCR, hoping to be resettled in a Western country. “We don’t ever want to go back to Iraq,” she said. “We want to make a new beginning.”
Meantime, Christina’s 55-year-old father, a civil-engineering professor, has not been able to find a job in Lebanon. “Every place, they tell him he’s too old,” she said. So her 17-year-old twin brothers have had to forfeit their education to support the family of four, one working in a print shop and the other in a furniture factory. Their mother died when Christina was 5 years old.
“Here, I feel like I’m valuable,” she said of the school. “I’ve found peace between friends and teachers. I think of them as family. I feel motivated to keep up with my studies and make up for all the harm that war has caused us. And I’ve had a chance to learn and discover a new language — French.”
The center’s outreach to the families includes monthly home visits by a JRS team of two, one of whom is a psychologist-social worker, biweekly women’s discussion groups focusing on social and health issues and literacy classes for women that include computer skills. The school is also planning evening open houses to involve both parents.
JRS is currently helping 250 refugee families who live near the center, including offering food assistance from a small shop, in which each family is allotted “points” per month based on the number of people in the family for direct “purchases” of basic food items. Blankets were distributed in the winter. JRS is also planning to open a health clinic in the neighborhood.
Prominently displayed in the teacher’s lounge at the Beirut center is Father Frans’ motto: “Go Forward.”
On the first anniversary of his death, April 7, the center held a memorial for the priest, providing the students with an opportunity to learn more about his life and his work with the poor.
Father Frans had served in Syria since 1966. In January 2014, in a video appeal from Syria a few months before he was assassinated, the 75-year-old priest implored: “Christians and Muslims are going through a difficult and painful time, and we are faced with many problems. The greatest of these is hunger. People have nothing to eat. There is nothing more painful than watching mothers searching for food for children in the streets.”
Proclaimed Father Frans, “I will not accept that we die of hunger. I do not accept that we drown in a sea of hunger, letting the waves of death drag us under. We love life; we want to live. And we do not want to sink in a sea of pain and suffering."
Doreen Abi Raad writes from Beirut, Lebanon.
To learn more about Jesuit Refugee Service, go to: JRSUSA.org.