In a mountainous sanctuary where it is easy to forget the neighboring war in Syria and the threats that have become commonplace in Lebanon, the stories of the children and women affected converge.
Perched against the railing, with a mosque in the near distance, one woman describes the Borj El Barajneh refugee camp where she and her classmates live with reserved distaste. Revealing that the dirty streets and cramped housing do not speak for the well-kept homes of its inhabitants. With her thickly accented Arabic and a touch of regret, she mentions that visitors to the area are afraid of what they see. But like the surface infrastructure, the preconceptions of those living outside of the refugee camps in Lebanon falsely taint this woman and her classmates attending their English and I.T. classes on this sunny morning.
This is the “Most Outstanding Moms” program, where underprivileged Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian women come together three days a week and learn beyond the borders that so often divide them. Some had never interacted with people outside of their nationality, religion or political party before these classes. This is a rare opportunity for education, having last entered a classroom as children or never at all. When each cycle of the program concludes, the women contribute to a potluck meal and celebrate their new friendships and achievements.
On the footpath below, a single line of bright-eyed four and five year olds make their way from the company of the baby rabbits and chicks, past the classrooms and blossoming trees and over to the other side of the campus to watch a movie. Often covered in glitter and paint, their teachers guide them away singing. Leaving big grins on the faces of people that see them, the “Healthy Alternative Program for Preschool Youth,” is as usual living up to its acronym – H.A.P.P.Y. Soon, the kindness of others will result in a freshly painted playground, alongside a recently donated swing set for them to enjoy. A place like this often inspires services and gifts of this kind.
The next day hosts a different batch of eager children, this time eight to eleven years old, scattered between their drama, art, music and sports classes. They start their day remembering and writing out the rules of the classroom and coloring enthusiastically.
One group then makes wobbly-eyed puppets out of previously used plastic spoons and scraps of leftover material from a local tailor; recycling is a common feature of their projects. A second group can be heard campus-wide relentlessly practicing rhythm combinations on all sorts of percussion instruments. And further along the pebbled paths that lead from the teaching studios to the football field are other children, playing development games and heated football matches. After a break to eat fruits picked from the campus grounds, the students move on to the next activity. This is the youngest group of Palestinian refugee students at risk of failing or dropping out of school that benefit from the “Skills4Life” program, funded by the European Union.
The Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP) hosts these programs, among many others, with a team of experts and volunteers. Founded in 2010, ULYP has since launched over ten unique programs with several more underway, always with a view to overcome the social barriers between the Lebanese host communities and refugee populations. This well-reputed local NGO promotes values that many of us may take for granted; respect, tolerance, equality, freedom of expression and an appreciation of human rights. Conflict resolution and peace-building elements are integrated into all program activities in an effort to increase understanding between Lebanon’s diverse populations.
Some of ULYP’s other programs have focused on literacy, career development, empowerment and social change among women, addressing community needs through sports, and strengthening media skills with training on short films; an endless endeavor to fill the gaps in many aspects of the lives of the marginalized.
Where many in this country may have once felt barred from real opportunities, ULYP facilitates access to what it considers the best investment for a united Lebanon: education. Through its “Bridge” program alone, ULYP has helped secure higher education scholarships nationally and abroad for over 300 Palestinian beneficiaries, putting them on more equal footing with their Lebanese peers. Back at the office, hopeful eleventh and twelfth grade students can be seen lining the reception on a daily basis, waiting to receive college counseling, tutoring for entrance exams or support with filling out applications.
Helping to do away with much of the anger and frustration that can accompany a life in the refugee camps with few healthy role models, ULYP teaches these promising individuals that there is no limit to what they can aim for and no challenge insurmountable when it comes to planning for their future.
It is this core belief in the children, youth, and the mothers that raise them that makes these initiatives a refreshing alternative for building peace in a turbulent region. With the Syrian refugee crisis at its height, when humanitarian aid becomes insufficient or unavailable, those in need will be left to depend on their minds. And what a blessing it is to have the tools to make your own choices, shape your own value system and decide your own future.
Hana Abul Husn is a Research Consultant for the International Labour Organization Regional Office for Arab States in Beirut.
Prior to this she worked for the Unite Lebanon Youth Project teaching Beginner English as a Second Language classes for the “Most Outstanding Moms” program and Conflict Resolution workshops for the EU-funded “Skills4Life” program.