Lessons and play open a new world for refugee children

by Kathryn Reid, World Vision on April 8, 2016

Teacher Wafaa Anjarani (grey sweater), leads a group of Syrian refugee children in an outdoor activity at an early childhood education center in Rajab, a settlement in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. Before fleeing to Lebanon, Wafaa taught for 15 years in the public schools in Syria.

Like a tender green shoot, hope springs up on the edge of Rajab, a Syrian refugee settlement in Lebanon. There, in three tents surrounded by a wire fence, children ages 3 to 6 are getting their first taste of school. It’s a heady experience for children used to drab surroundings and few, if any, toys.

“These children haven’t been to school before — here or in Syria,” says supervisor Thanaa Hamdanieh, a Lebanese woman who taught for 18 years in Bekaa Valley schools.

New children are coming every day, she says, but the Early Childhood Education center so far averages 54 students in the morning and 54 more in the afternoon — two sessions daily — Monday through Friday.

Just last week, when most of them started, they “knew nothing,” Thanaa says. No numbers, no songs, no written words in Arabic or English. Now they are launched into a new world of words and figures, shapes and colors, and days of the week.

There’s a buzz of excitement and a bit of hubbub and disorder as children pop up out of their chairs or burst out talking and laughing. But the teachers are like magnets drawing the children’s eyes and minds in their direction, showing them pictures, playing music, and encouraging them to sing: “A is for Apple, B is for ball …”

“We have stories and play with toys. There’s about 30 minutes of play, several breaks, as well as a meal,” says teacher Wafaa Anjarani, a Syrian refugee herself.

But the meat of the Early Childhood Education program is academics — English, math, Arabic, and science — taught with lots of songs and activities.

The curriculum is equivalent to kindergarten and first and second grades, says Thanaa.

Samira Al Allawi, 5 (in red shirt) plays a counting game at the early childhood education center in Rajab.

Rehearsal for ‘real school’
Standing in the doorway of the tent for 5- and 6-year-olds, Thanaa comments on their conduct and appearance: “The first days were chaotic. Now they are learning to come on time, to take their places, to be more clean.”

She says it’s new to the children to be in a group, so it’s important for them to respect the rules and work together.

“This is necessary so that when they go to real school, they will be ready, and they will be well behaved,” she says.

The children are also learning to listen, raise their hands to ask a question, and line up.

Cleanliness is vital, too, Thanaa says: “We try to help by encouraging them to have their fingernails cut, hair brushed, and to shower.”

But cleanliness is not easily achieved in Rajab settlement. When it rains, as it frequently does, everyone in the settlement fights a battle with mud. No matter how carefully children step, there’s no avoiding slipping and splashing.

In their everyday lives, the children have a lot more than mud to overcome. Many have lost family members and friends, they’ve seen frightful things and been scarred by the effects of war on their families.

World Vision’s Early Childhood Education program is for children ages 3 to 6. The center opened in February 2016. Students learn English, math, Arabic, and science taught with a lot of songs and activities. In a half-day session, there’s also time for play and a meal.

For older children, other challenges
“The center is really good, but the problem is the older children can’t come here, and often they can’t go to regular school either,” says Fady Farah, program coordinator. He explains that the Lebanese Ministry of Education doesn’t allow children of school age, including refugees, to attend informal education.

For older refugee children who may have been out of school for years and know only Arabic, it’s tough to make the transition to a Lebanese school where some subjects are taught in French or English. The cost of transportation to school may also be prohibitive, and many children have to work to support their families.

Some older children are able to navigate the difficulties to attend school with Lebanese peers or study in the same schools in afternoon sessions that are only for refugees.

“My cousin who teaches in the the Lebanese public school system says some of the older children from Syria can do fine in school here,” Thanaa says. ”We want to make sure that these younger ones will be ready to start school when they are old enough.”

Refugee children at an Early Childhood Education center wear crowns with their names written on them in Arabic.

Hope for a bright future
“Kitar!” says teacher Hala Mazloum, another Syrian refugee. The word sounds something like that in Arabic, but with a deep, throat-clearing sound on the “K.” It means train, and the 4- and 5-year-old children catch on right away. Placing hands on the shoulder or waist of the child in front of them, they chug off to play games in a field they share with a herd of sheep.

Adults are drawn to the fence surrounding the three tents to see what’s going on. The children’s songs, games, and laughter make everything in this dull, muddy settlement brighter.

In a few days, parents whose children attend the center will get a call from the teachers inviting them to a meeting.

“We will ask the parents to keep them clean, to see that the older ones do homework, and we will tell them what their children have learned,” says Thanaa.

“We will tell them, ‘Yes, your child can be ready to attend school.’”

This article was originally published on World Vision Now

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