Young students line up at the Fratelli School. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Children attend English class at the Fratelli School in Saida, Lebanon. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Children play on the grounds of the Fratelli School. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Students at the school enjoy a sports class. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
Syrian children socialize during a recess period. (photo: Tamara Abdul Hadi)
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?’ “
The two religious brothers discovered a former Marist school, Our Lady of Fatima, in the nearby village of Rmeileh; it had been abandoned during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war. The Marist community gave the brothers the space, and they set about renovating it, as mortar damage and decades of neglect had rendered the building and its surroundings dangerous and unfit for use.
Again, visiting shelters and dwellings of Syrian refugees in the Sidon area, Brothers Miquel and Andrés began to reach out to parents, encouraging them to send their children to what they called the Fratelli Center. In parallel they met with Lebanese families in the community to encourage them to enroll their children for additional educational support.
The participation of Lebanese families was essential to their project, the brothers reasoned, as part of an effort to promote better relations among the Lebanese host community and Syrian refugees. Syria’s 1976-2005 occupation of Lebanon, however, left open “a lot of wounds” among the Lebanese population toward the Syrians, notes Brother Andrés.
The Fratelli Center in Rmeileh began with four classes in March 2016. Since then, it has blossomed and now includes a preschool for Syrian children, a basic literacy program for Syrian children who have missed some schooling, educational support for Lebanese and Syrian children who do attend school, as well as sports and recreational programs and activities for all. The center now serves more than 600 children and youth.
Brothers Andrés and Miquel are also joined by De La Salle Brother Gilbert Ouilabégué Oueidigue of Chad and a dedicated team of teachers and volunteers, Christian and Muslim alike. Although Fratelli operates as an informal school, the association is approved by the Ministry of Education and has monthly meetings with the ministry and with UNICEF. The colorful, pristine building, adorned with murals and children’s artwork is alive with enthusiasm.
Gazing upon her class of Syrian first graders as she concludes a lesson in math, teacher Maria Dagher remarks, “Can you imagine their lives if they did not come to Fratelli? Here, they learn Arabic, English and math. They are thriving and so eager to learn.”
One of her students came to class with a sad face that day. Ms. Dagher asked him why. The little boy replied, “because yesterday I was absent — I didn’t come.”
Ms. Dagher adds, “Just like the kids, I also look forward to coming here every day. It’s my paradise.”
Fratelli is unique in that its support extends to the whole family. The center is not only helping Syrian refugee children who have missed out on school, but their parents as well. Parents regularly gather at Fratelli for meetings, activities and classes, particularly for women to learn vocational skills. Home visits or offsite meetings offer psychosocial counseling and assistance. And in one small room at one of the shelters, women learn English and computer skills.
After her morning sewing session at Fratelli, Nahla meets up with her 10-year-old son Hassan during his recess. Nahla, Hassan and the rest of the family fled to Lebanon eight years ago from Idlib. For five years, Nahla’s children lingered without an education in their adopted country.
“I was really upset. I wanted my children to go to school so they can have a good future. In life, you can’t do anything without an education.”
Now, three of her children are enrolled in Fratelli. “Our whole life has changed because of Fratelli,” Nahla says. She notices improvements in her family, as the children have become more disciplined and focused.
“The education is alive here,” she says. Hassan entered Fratelli at the age of 7, his first time ever attending school. His preparation at Fratelli enabled him to enroll in public school for second grade, where he attends the afternoon shift. His favorite subject is English.
“Fratelli is so good to us,” Hassan remarked. “And I’ve learned how to take responsibility so I can get good grades.”
When asked what he would like to be when he grows up, Hassan’s mother directly responded, “I want you to be a teacher.”
Hassan loves playing soccer at Fratelli, his first introduction to the sport. Sometimes he serves as goalkeeper. “I like the teamwork of sports,” he says. “I learned that we should not bully and we have to play fairly.”
Sports give children the opportunity to build self-esteem and release the daily pressures they experience. At Fratelli, girls are encouraged to play sports as much as the boys.
In fact, through collaboration with Real Madrid Foundation, Fratelli created a soccer league, the only school in Lebanon working with refugees to have such a program. Fratelli also plans to implement a program in November 2019 integrating academics with sports.
Displaced Syrians finding refuge in Lebanon were faced with difficulties in adjusting to a new way of life, which Fratelli psychologist Jacques Lahoud likened to “jet lag.”
“It’s not easy, especially for adolescents, to see clearly their future, or to have a dream,” Lahoud points out. “It’s just a time to survive.”
But with Fratelli’s support, youth are learning to adapt to their situation and to see beyond their present plight.
Back home in Idlib, Ghofran used to live with her grandparents. “I was very close to them, even more than I was to my parents.” The 17-year-old’s last memory of Syria was tearfully saying goodbye to them when her family fled to Lebanon six years ago. “It was very hard for me,” she says, with a poised strength.
Ghofran languished in Lebanon for nearly five years without any schooling. “Fratelli gave me the chance to go back to school and continue my education.”
When asked about her dream for the future, she is quick with her answer. “Because of the war in Syria, there’s a generation without education. I’d like to go back to Syria and help those kids who were left out of school, as I was helped here at Fratelli,” she says.
For 14-year-old Falak, also from Idlib, thriving at Fratelli means she has a goal to pursue: She aims to be an agricultural engineer, whereas her father has worked as an agricultural laborer. “My father is so proud of me because of my good grades.”
As a Christian religious working mainly with Muslims, Brother Andrés considers the mission a strong witness. “We are living the Gospel and building the Kingdom of God without being explicit. But with our way of treating the children, the way of programming activities and showing them universal values like love, forgiveness and sharing, they feel the spirituality of our mission.
“I’ve always said, since the beginning, that I see the presence of God in their eyes, especially in the smiles of the children,” Brother Andrés says. “For me, these children are the daily presence of God; it is very transparent, how they share their happiness and look in your eyes with such pureness.”
What Syrians want most is to return to their homeland, but right now they cannot, Brother Andrés points out. “There is a lot of uncertainty,” he says.
In the meantime, Brother Andrés adds, “we offer them hope in the future.”
Fratelli is always looking forward. Renovations remain so as to give the school a more solid structure. And, despite the school’s success, it continually strives for excellence.
“We are doing a good job, but we can improve in giving more professional service to the children,” Brother Andrés says, citing seminars for the formation of the Fratelli team as one possibility.
Florian Schultz, a 32-year-old teacher from Hamburg, Germany, is one of four live-in volunteers serving Fratelli. “The presence of the brothers who have committed their lives to the children makes it very special for the children as well as for the teachers,” he says.
Florian and fellow volunteer from Germany, 23-year-old Jonathan Eisleb, who is serving at Fratelli as part of his “gap” year at university, have realized, from their European perspective, how valuable it is to have a childhood not impacted by violence or displacement. In working with Syrian refugee children, they’ve seen “how different life’s realities are,” says Jonathan.
“Life is not always fair. Many kids have such a big burden and are hindered, from the beginning of their lives. Here at Fratelli, they feel protected and secure.”
As the end of his volunteering mission approaches, Jonathan reflects, “we have so many experiences here that are in my heart that will live forever.”