Rana Najib was living in Damascus, Syria with her family when the civil war started in 2012. She was working with a program connected to the European Union at that time, but two months into the war the program fell through because the EU pulled funding when Western nations sanctioned the Syrian government. She went to Germany to continue her studies, but decided to go back to Damascus to help her family during the war.
Luckily, the part of Damascus where she and her family resided was not under attack and leaving the country was actually an option for her. She started to look for work in Syria, but job offers were limited because of the war so she went job-searching in Lebanon, Syria’s neighbor. By chance, Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internationale (AVSI), an Italian international not-for-profit, non-governmental organization (NGO), was launching an emergency intervention operation in Lebanon. She pursued an interview with the NGO and was eventually given a job.
La Voce sat down at the UN Headquarters in New York, to talk with Ms. Najib, who is now the Education Coordinator of AVSI’s present $10 million operation in Lebanon, and Maria Laura Conte, AVSI’s Communications Director, to discuss how they are handling the Syrian refugee crisis.
Lebanon now hosts approximately 1.1 million Syrian refugees, nearly one fourth of its population, trailing only Turkey, which hosts 2.5 million. Human Rights Watch released a report on July 19 showing that 250,000 of the approximately 500,000 school-age Syrians in Lebanon are out of school. This epidemic is in spite of the nation’s generous allowance of Syrian children to go to public school for free, regardless of their legal residency. Ms. Najib confirmed for us, however, that according to her UNICEF colleagues the figure is much higher: “Now in Lebanon there are more than 377,000 children currently excluded from formal and non-formal education programs.” This is due to limited educational resources, refugees’ inability to pay for travel fees and school supplies, and Lebanon’s residency regulations which effectively bar most Syrians from renewing their residency permits.
Since refugees are continuing to lose their residency status, and consequently, their legal standing, Syrians are left vulnerable to many forms of abuse and exploitation without the ability to seek justice and protection. Additionally, Lebanon has not granted Syrian refugees the right to obtain work permits, condemning them to find under-the-table jobs and participate in the black market, which under the residency laws leaves most Syrian families helpless.
This is where AVSI comes in. Founded in 1972, AVSI is currently involved in 107 cooperation projects in 30 developing countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. The NGO focuses on vocational training, health care, urban development, migration and refugees, nutrition, food security, agriculture, water, humanitarian emergencies, energy and the environment, and in the case of Lebanon, social and educational development in partnership with UNICEF.
“The organization has a lot of activities, but the problem of the migrants has taken a lot of energy during the last period,” said Conte. She explained that AVSI’s philosophy is to solve the crisis by following the whole path made by the migrants–starting from their home countries, to places of transitional refuge, and finally to the migrants’ final destination.
“A realistic approach to the migration problem must follow this path. The problem is complex and it’s necessary to follow their way,” she added.
In Lebanon, AVSI and UNICEF have been working together since 2013 to integrate out-of-school children into the formal school system and/or into other education options. They now are reaching 15,000 children. Najib explained to us the four primary activities she coordinates across Lebanon (in the South, Nabatieh, and Mount Lebanon regions).
First, the NGOs focus on retention support. AVSI and UNICEF help facilitate afterschool programs that offer children an extra hour of homework support 2-3 days a week. The aim is to help them remain in school.
Second is the organizations’ “call back to school outreach campaign.” This activity targets children and their parents living in rural areas of Lebanon. “We are doing a very big outreach campaign in order to inform every child living in very far rural areas hearing nothing about what’s going on in terms of how to be enrolled in public school, whether it’s free or not, or if it is accessible to non-Lebanese,” Najib said. Many Syrians do not know that the Lebanese government has granted their children the right to a free public education. AVSI and UNICEF workers act as family advisors, or counselors for these Syrian refugees. So far they have conducted 500 household visits to beneficiaries of the outreach campaign.
Third is their effort to target children aged 3-5 for early childhood education, and fourth is to help enroll adolescents in “life skills” activities for positive behavior. “It’s not only for the Syrians, we consider all nationalities–host communities who are the Lebanese and also other refugees like Palestinians, Iraqis,” Najib clarified.
Conte and Najib also emphasized that their organization takes into consideration the sustainability of educational integration. They believe that their humanitarian work needs to empower local communities and local NGOs–to leave partners with the capacity to continue their work when they leave. The organizations also consider gender and equity into their programs, they added.
La Voce asked Ms. Najib about her personal experience operating in Lebanon. When asked whether or not she has run into any problems regarding the trust of refugees due to differing political views, she responded, “Personally I used to like politics before the war, and I was really following a lot.” However, when she first went to Lebanon and into a Syrian refugee camp, she “really started to hate politics and to hate everything related to politics.”
“My mind was really on how can we help these people and it was very challenging at the beginning seeing my population in this situation,” Najib added. Regarding the trust between her and the refugees, she explained that it was clear to them that she was there to help without any party affiliation. When asked about how people felt about her being from government-protected areas in Syria, she responded, “I think this is humanitarian work in the end. I don’t think the government minds if there are people helping the community. For me personally I didn’t have any problem.”
Conte and Najib both described to us the tensions building between Syrians in refugee camps and between the refugees and Lebanese citizens. Usually people from the same village, or region attract each other and remain in contact, Conte explained. However, sometimes within refugee camps there is conflict between those in favor of the Syrian government and those in opposition.
“In one camp where we were working in South Lebanon, there was a big tension between two groups. One in favor of the government and the other not. Apparently, in some cases the state of being a refugee doesn’t affect whether they agree [politically],” Najib recounted. Most of the tension within camps is political, she explained, but there are cases where it stems from religious differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
Conte and Najib also briefly noted that discrimination exists between Syrian and Lebanese children at school. In one afterschool program, Conte remembered, the school would not open in the afternoon because the beneficiaries were mostly Syrian. The school can barely handle the tension between the Lebanese and Syrian children in the morning so they didn’t want to risk opening up another afternoon shift, she said. Najib affirmed that the discrimination Syrian children experience at school is a factor they must consider in their work.
La Voce asked the ladies if they saw a lot of families leave for Europe out of Lebanon. “First of all, we do follow up with all the families. We call them our beneficiaries, so when for example, we target 2,000 children going to school, we call again after some time to follow up their situation,” Najib explained. Sometimes they call and find that the family has left for Germany, or some Western country, but they cannot know in advanced because they do not share that information with AVSI, she said. Living conditions are very hard in Lebanon, especially for Syrian refugees because the nation is very expensive and the displaced have very little to survive on. Such conditions incentivize refugees to risk the dangerous expedition for Europe across the Mediterranean.
Lebanon is a “ticking time bomb,” said Ms. Conte. The refugees need to integrate into Lebanese society, and while humanitarian programs that simply give money to families in need may help temporarily, it is far more important for Syrians to be given work, she asserted.
“Imagine you are a father with children. The family leaves to a refugee camp. He gets the money, they can leave for half a month–sitting, doing nothing. Every man needs to work because work implies movement, implies creativity, a sense of dignity,” Conte explained. If you create community-building projects it “creates the feeling that you are useful, that you can work, you can earn your salary, and with this money you can send your children to school, waiting for peace [in Syria].”
Conte explains that Syrians in Lebanon is a concern because “when the peace arrives, and we do hope one day the peace arrives, who will be able to rebuild Syria?” When Syrians go abroad to the West they will settle and integrate into those societies, leaving only a fraction of the pre-war population within the country. “Who, the question is, who will rebuild Syria?”
“Even my family in France who are not refugees and are around the world either working or studying have lost hope because they don’t see any close solution. I think everybody is currently losing hope. It has been 6 years now–this is the 6th year. The situation is just getting worse and worse, especially economically,” said Najib. The ladies kept stressing that only an end to the war will alleviate the crisis.
To end on a hopeful note, Stefano Vaccara, editor of La Voce, reminded the ladies that a similar ordeal happened during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and in time the war-torn country has improved dramatically. Najib and Conte smiled at his remark and agreed that they know the war will end, just not very soon they believe. In the meantime, AVSI continues to do exceptional work for Syrian refugees and Lebanese citizens in need, as well as other people suffering from humanitarian crises around the globe.