School, for Kheir and Mhamad, had a different meaning. For these two boys, school was a getaway; somewhere they can enjoy their childhood and escape the unfairness of the world. When kids their age were crying to skip school, these two Syrian refugee children were begging their mothers to let them attend the classes.
Instead of going to school Kheir, five, was gathering plastic and nylon on the streets and selling them. Mhamad, six, was collecting potatoes from the field for hours every day.
“He’s the only one in the family who stands the chance of having a good future. All our hopes are pinned on Kheir”, said his mother Souraya, 37.
Kheir’s father remarried and had children from his second wife. He no longer supported his children from his first marriage, especially after both families fled to Lebanon from Aleppo in 2011. None of Kheir’s eight older siblings had the chance of going to school, neither in Syria nor in Lebanon.
Souraya heard about World Vision’s “Early Children Education” programme funded by World Vision Hong Kong, World Vision Germany, World Vision US and the Swedish Pentecostal Mission’s Relief and Development Agency (PMU). The programme is targeting children from three to six years and is based on activities that develop children’s skills through a curriculum that includes: learning the alphabet, sounds, colours, songs, numbers and other fun, yet academic activities. The classes take place in seven different informal settlements in the Bekaa area. Souraya registered Kheir as his age was suitable. His older brothers had to continue gathering plastic from the areas surrounding the settlement and selling them, so that the family could survive.
They often asked Kheir for his help in certain neighbourhoods. “He begs me to go to school instead of work, just because he likes it more” declared Souraya.
“I make US$7 on most days. I use it to buy bread and water for my family, but at school, I eat a lot more than at home”, Kheir admitted.
“It isn’t just about food”, Souraya interrupted, “Kheir stopped being violent with other children. He cares more about his personal hygiene and nothing makes him happier than getting good feedback from his teachers.” The best moment for him was receiving new colouring books and pencils. His shining eyes were a mirror of his eagerness to gain knowledge.
“The school is like a sanctuary to him and I encourage that” said Souraya. Kheir asked to assist his brothers at work only after school as he is very keen on not missing his morning classes and keeping up with his classmates.
Mhamad’s situation is slightly different. His work requires waking up by dawn and heading early to the grasslands to collect potatoes, which also means skipping school on some days. Even though there was afternoon schooling, he generally came home exhausted and suffered of a back pain.
Mhamad’s mother Zahiya, 40, believes that the family has no choice but for Mhamad to be helping out his two older brothers.
In a family of three boys and three girls, the boys felt responsible of maintaining a financial income after their father suffered a stroke a year ago leaving him very ill and unable to work.
Although everything changed for the boys, school kept Mhamad from losing all his joy. “A series of events, from the brutality of the war to his father’s illness, traumatised Mhamad. “ Zahiya admitted, “However I truly believe that the games he plays at school and the songs he learns put an end to his nightmares. My son has so much peace in him now”.
Both Souraya and Zahiya appreciated the constant care of the World Vision staff at the education centre for Kheir and Mhamad. “They visit our tent whenever Mhamad skips school and emphasise on the importance of his daily attendance”, said Zahiya.
World Vision’s education programmes offer an academic “home” over a period of four months for 748 Syrian refugee children. Kheir and Mohamad are not the only ones affected by child labour. 20 of their 165 schoolmates at the centre are forced to work, beg on the streets or even steal. Nevertheless, with education, these children now stand the chance of experiencing a peaceful childhood and a promising future.