Education, trauma counseling key to helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon

IMAGE: CNS photo/Dale Gavlak

By Dale Gavlak

Lebanon (CNS) — On a rainy spring day, the misery of hundreds of thousands
of Syrian refugees is compounded as they shelter in dilapidated shanties dotting a
long muddy swathe of the verdant Bekaa Valley.

plastic sheeting, advertising cameras and cosmetics, bundle the creaky
structures like unusual parcels stacked in jaunty rows, but the sheeting does
little to keep out the damp and cold.

150,000 such informal camps for Syrian refugees exist in the valley because the
Lebanese authorities do not allow the United Nations to set up camps in the
country. The refugees must pay Lebanese landowners $35-$100 a month to park
tents and shanties on land used mainly for agriculture.

victims fleeing Syria’s 5-year conflict were among those visited by Pope
Francis on the Greek island of Lesbos, as their hopes of starting a new life in
Europe fade. Hundreds have died in the past year making the perilous journey
into Turkey and onward to Greece in flimsy skiffs.

But the
1.06 million Syrians who remain in neighboring Lebanon face continuing
struggles with war trauma, dwindling funds, and a very uncertain and often
dangerous future.

have internalized the violence and loss in the conflict in Syria. Perhaps they
saw loved ones killed, their houses destroyed in front of their eyes, or even
being uprooted from their country has caused trauma,” Monette Kraitem, a Lebanese psychologist
working the Catholic charitable agency Caritas, told Catholic News Service.

She and
fellow Caritas psychologist Christelle
Ltief have so far helped 1,500 Syrian refugee children and women
sheltering in this part of the Bekaa Valley to process the pain at the Caritas
Lebanon Migrant Center in the nearby town of Taalabaya.

try to help the children deal with their trauma by expressing their feelings”
through “play, art and music therapy, relaxation and respiration
techniques, and individual and group therapy, where children can say how they
feel without being judged,” Ltief told CNS.

then feel free and released with a sense of well-being that finally begins to
return to them,” she said, as cans of colorful crayons and markers could
be seen stashed on a nearby table.

Syrian refugee children in the Bekaa exhibit aggressive behavior toward
siblings and other children at school, struggle with hyperactivity, anxiety and
fear, as well as sleep and eating disorders, the psychologists said.

come to us complaining that their children are bed-wetting, hostile and suffer
from concentration and learning difficulties at school,” Ltief said.

recounted the story of a young girl named Fadiya who witnessed her father’s death
and torture in Syria.

had so many problems, including ways of communicating with her mother and
sisters, insomnia and eating disorders,” Lteif said. “But we found
that after therapy and many individual sessions, she has been able gradually to
overcome this trauma.”

Lebanon is also the main education partner for UNICEF, the U.N. children’s
agency, in the Bekaa Valley. While Caritas plays a pivotal role in helping
about 7,000 Syrian refugee children get the education they need, it faces huge challenges.

For a
start, the charity would like to see more than double that number attend
Lebanese public schools in the valley. Doing so ensures that Syrian children
will not lose out on education and will receive a recognized certificate for
their studies, unlike teaching performed informally in the camps.

is needed in order not to have a lost generation from the war in Syria, but the
refugees do not make our work easy,” Laurent Kallas, communications officer with the
Caritas education department, told CNS.

In some
of the informal camps, extremist ideology is also being taught, Kallas said.

immediately report this to the Lebanese Ministry of Education to take urgent
action,” he said.

Syrian refugees
settling in the Bekaa Valley often come from rural areas and do not
see the need for educating their children beyond a certain point, said Rebecca Chamoun, an educational
coordinator for Caritas.

runs educational awareness programs to try to convince families that education
can lead to a better life, income and brighter opportunities. The charity
provides needed school materials such as stationery, school bags and, sometimes,

families resist sending their daughters to school believing girls are “only
for marriage and homemaking at the age of 13 or 14,” Chamoun told CNS. Others
fear their unchaperoned daughters will be exposed to unwanted advances at

may pull their boys out of school, she said, because they are expected to work
alongside their parents in planting or harvesting of crops to earn money for
the family.

And, in
sharp contrast to conservative Middle Eastern cultural mores, some Syrian
refugee fathers send their daughters out to work as prostitutes to get “easy

said that families justify the action by saying that the income is better than
what is earned from working in agriculture, when the refugees often are paid in
harvested food rather than cash.

you tell the girl, please, go to school, build your future. She says: ‘It will
be years until I have an income. I will go work on the streets instead,'”
Chamoun said, expressing the frustration of educators.

course, this action takes its own psychological and physical toll on the child
as she is exposed to violence, abuse and sometimes rape,” Kallas said.
Some fall prey to human traffickers.

other cases, families force their daughters into early marriage for the wedding

saw a beautiful young girl in the camp holding a little baby,” Kallas
said. “I thought it was her sister. But I was told that the girl just got
married — for the second time — to a 60-year-old man.”

the girl married at 10, was divorced at 12, and then remarried at 13 when she
was able to have sexual relations,” said Kallas, shaking his head in

added that some refugees are so desperate that they sell their organs, especially
kidneys, to gain badly needed cash to pay for rent and food.

Syrian children didn’t know their rights to attend Lebanese public schools. We
helped them to know their rights,” Zahraa Ayoub, Caritas social work field
coordinator, told CNS. The coordinator said one social worker told a family who
initially refused to send the daughter: “Education is like a ‘weapon’ for
her to enter society in a strong way and face all problems.”

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