Across Bekka and Akkar in Lebanon, Dubai Cares program in partnership with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is helping 4,300 Syrian refugee children like siblings Maha and Abdul Aziz struggling in the Lebanese public school system with math, Arabic and a second language (French or English).
maha* never had the chance to go to school in Raqqa, Syria. ISIS militants had moved in and cancelled all classes as the nine-year-old was preparing to start first grade. She and her 10-year-old brother Abdul Aziz* remained out of school for two years because of the war.
Their mother Fida* refused to send her children to school under ISIS’ rule, as students are exposed to a brutal curriculum which incorporates descriptions of shootings and beheadings. She wanted to escape, but the city was under siege and no one was allowed out.
“They were afraid of the sounds of gunfire and bombings. I didn’t allow them to leave the house; they were so depressed at home,” Fida recalls. “But I didn’t want them witnessing what was happening outside. I continued to reassure them it will be all ok and would end soon.”
As life under ISIS continued to become unbearable, Fida decided to attempt the risky escape with her young children to Lebanon where her husband was working at the time. She could only pack a few essentials - food, water and diapers for her newborn – since those caught fleeing would most likely be executed. At the checkpoints, she lied and told the militants she was on her way to a wedding. It took her seven days to walk to Damascus.
“We ran out of food and water,” Fida says. “The kids were very hungry and tired, but I told them we have to keep moving. We will meet your father and register you for school.”
After reaching Damascus, the family rested for a few days before taking a bus to the Lebanese border and walking the rest of the way through the mountainous Bekka Valley. It took Fida and her kids a total of 15 days to travel from Raqqa to Lebanon.
“I can’t tell you how we survived; we just did and I’m thankful every single day,” Fida says.
Fida kept her promise and enrolled the children in the second-shift of the Lebanese public school system. This shift is available to thousands of Syrian children where they are taught Arabic, English, math, science, civil society and geography.
But the children were terrified to go back to school because of the haunting memories of home.
“They were afraid someone would take the school from them again; they were scared it would be bombed.”
After some convincing, Maha and Abdul Aziz were enrolled but struggled for several months. Maha did not know how to read or write and Abdul Aziz was bullied by his peers. A year later, the children have made an astounding transformation – graduating as the top two students of their class.
Directly contributing to this transformation was the IRC’s remedial support classes funded by Dubai Cares, which help Syrian children succeed in Lebanese public schools. For Maha, the remedial program improved her reading and writing skills and provided her with a new sense of confidence. Abdul Aziz began to receive higher scores in math and English and improve his social skills with his peers, and is seen by his teachers as one of the fastest learners in his class.
“I love reading out-loud now and writing sentences. I also help my classmates with their writing,” Maha says.
“It took some time, but I started to make new friends,” Abdul Aziz added. “I have one friend who was very kind to me and introduced me to new people. I’m very sociable now.”
Fida is extremely proud of her children and thankful that they are back in the classroom.
“They are happier now and excited to come home and share what they have learned in school,” she says.
Both Maha and Aziz are thrilled to be at the top of their class. They enjoy studying and learning new things, especially science – their favorite subject at school.
“I am confident I will be successful,” Abdul Aziz says. “I want to be something important, like a civil engineer.”
“And, I want to be a doctor or an Arabic teacher,” adds Maha.
Thanks to the remedial support program, children like Maha and Abdul Aziz are gaining the foundational skills that will make their future dreams possible.
*Last names omitted at the request of the family.