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Syrian Refugee Children Find Normalcy at Good Shepherd Center

19 Dec 2014 – By Brooke Anderson

DEIR EL AHMAR, Lebanon (CNS) — It could be the scene of an ordinary school day anywhere. Just a few days before Christmas, the younger students were making decorations and singing carols downstairs, while the older ones were taking their final exams upstairs.

But for the Syrian refugee children at the Good Shepherd Social Center in Deir el Ahmar, getting an education is something many of their young compatriots are missing.

“It started with a storm,” said Good Shepherd Sister Micheline Lattouff, who heads the center, as she recalled the harsh winter two years ago when hundreds of Syrian families in need fled across the border to Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. That’s what prompted the opening of a school for Syrian refugee children in a small border town.

“They kept coming, and we couldn’t say no,” she added.

What began as an ad hoc solution in late 2012 to serve a hundred needy children has now become a school for more than 300 young refugees ages 5 to 14.

The building itself was constructed in late 2011 as an afterschool learning center for local Lebanese children. By 2012, hundreds of Syrian families had crossed into the Deir el Ahmar area, with little more than the clothes on their backs. There was a clear need for relief services.

“We wanted them to have a dignified life, so we started with housing and food. Then we saw that the children needed an education,” said Sister Micheline.

The sisters are supported by international donors, including the New York-based Catholic Near East Welfare Association and Catholic Relief Services, the U.S. bishops’ international relief and development agency.

The sisters said they plan to celebrate Christmas — complete with decorations, sweets, gifts and a Christmas play by a troupe from Beirut — with the children, most of whom are Muslim.

A typical day starts at 8:30 a.m. The younger children file into the courtyard, where they gather in circles, hold hands and sing French songs, including Christmas carols this time of year. Once in class, they learn all the subjects they would have learned in Syria, but with more of an emphasis on French, the primary language of education in Lebanon. For most of these children, school is the only opportunity to have any structure or a chance at a better future.

Prior to the outbreak of the civil war nearly four years ago, Syria had one of the highest student enrollment rates in the region — well over 90 percent, according to the United Nations.

According to Save the Children, 80 percent of Syrian children in Lebanon who fled their country’s war are not attending school. These days, most Syrian refugee children spend their days either at home or working odd jobs to help their families meet their basic needs.

Sister Micheline said it took some coaxing for some of the families to enroll their children, many of whom had been out of school for at least a year. In addition to providing education, the center also distributes food and clothing to the local Syrian refugee community, most of whom live in tents at a nearby makeshift camp.

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Tags: Syria Lebanon Refugees Sisters Relief