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Fratelli, Where Education Is Alive

text by Doreen Abi Raad with photographs by Tamara Abdul Hadi

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They were considered part of Syria’s “lost generation.”

They are children who came into Lebanon by the thousands, beginning in 2011 — brought by parents and grandparents fleeing the violence and bloodshed of a war in Syria. Lebanon gave them a safe haven, a sanctuary in the ongoing turmoil of the Middle East.

It was only supposed to be temporary. But what began as a temporary measure soon evolved into a sense of permanency. Months stretched into years. Lebanon became packed with refugees, as they continued to pour in, day after day, month after month. What started as thousands stretched to about 1.5 million, in a country with just 4 million people. Housing became scarce; jobs became scarcer. Schools became crowded, as classrooms were filled to overflowing.

An emergency became a crisis. According to recent figures of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 666,491 refugee children registered in Lebanon, Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian, 58 percent of whom are out of school.

Could anything be done?

One answer came in the form of two religious brothers who started an initiative to serve those young children on the margins — a non-profit association offering them education, opportunity and, in a very real sense, a place of kinship and belonging. Indeed, the association’s very name, “Fratelli,” means “brothers” — a nod to the two men behind the initiative and, in a broader sense, the feeling of family embodied by its mission.

As a result, today a generation that was thought to be lost has been found — and many children have also, in the process, found a future.

The main concept of the Fratelli Association was born in Rome by the Marist and De La Salle congregations of religious men as an answer to the call of Pope Francis to go beyond the borders and “reach out to everyone, in particular those who live in the peripheries of existence.”

Spanish Marist Brother Miquel Cubeles and Mexican De La Salle Brother Andrés Porras came to Lebanon in September 2015, first setting out to study and analyze the refugee situation in the country, meeting with some 100 groups or individuals to understand the full scope of the refugee crisis and its impact on education.

Aside from refugee children missing out on education in Lebanon, they realized that refugees who were able to enter the country’s schools struggled with the Lebanese curriculum. In Syria, all subjects are taught in Arabic, whereas Lebanon’s schools are bi- or tri-lingual, employing Arabic, English and French. Refugees thus have little chance to succeed without much-needed educational support.

In January 2016, Brothers Miquel and Andrés started working in the Sed el Baouchrieh section of Beirut, serving Iraqi refugee children. A few months later, the brothers visited shelters housing Syrian refugees near the coastal city of Sidon, 25 miles south of Beirut.

“We were very touched by the reality of the children, especially that they didn’t go to school and lived in very bad conditions,” Brother Andrés recounts.

“We were thinking, ‘how can we help these children?’ “

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