BY KEZIA M’CLELLAND
What does hope look like, and where can we find it? I’ve come to discover that hope emerges in the most unlikely of places – even in a dusty, dangerous refugee camp – and when it does it can change everything.
After nearly six years of conflict, Syria’s children continue to face incredible difficulties and challenges. In neighbouring Lebanon, where a quarter of the population are Syrian refugees, almost three-quarters of such households are living below the poverty line, and life is especially difficult for children. Half of Syrian refugee children in Lebanon remain out of school, and in the Bekaa Valley, seven out of ten children are missing out on education.
After so many years, and with so little change, it’s easy to become discouraged and disengaged. And yet, while media coverage of the crisis ebbs and wanes, the story of the local church in Lebanon sacrificially taking action continues, largely unobserved.
In my last visit to Lebanon to support partners LSESD, we worked with one church situated in an area away from the main towns and cities of the Bekaa Valley, not far from the Syrian border. Here, small clusters of tents represent communities of refugees, unreached by other service providers or humanitarian organisations. The church, rooted and based in this local area already, is the main actor noticing these families and looking for ways to support them. It has got to know these families and helped to meet their basic needs. The church has also started a nonformal education project resulting in 100 primary school-age children now back in school.
Through this new project, we wanted to work with the church to look more deeply at the situation and learn about child protection issues, and to identify vulnerable groups of children who are missing out on getting support. Using a community-based research approach, we spent time working with a team of volunteers from the local church and from the Syrian community themselves, to visit families, speak with children and young people, men and women.
Our aim was to try to understand together what issues children are facing, and to work together to develop new ideas which can be carried out by the community in partnership with the church, and our support, to really address these needs.
Sometimes what we heard and saw felt hopeless; almost all children over 11 seemed to be working and out of school, and children also faced many physical risks to their safety in their living environment. Many children were also struggling to deal with difficult things they have seen or experienced. Far from the extended family support they had back in Syria, many of the mothers feel alone and with no one to talk to as they try to care for their children in an increasingly insecure situation.
As well as learning about the challenges and issues, we also tried to gather ideas of what could be done to improve the situation. After several days with the community, everyone was invited to a meeting together where we shared the results of the discussions and took time to think about solutions and the next steps.
Children had drawn maps of their community, showing some of the dangers they face, and during the meeting we were able to use their ideas to come up with practical steps that could be taken to make where they live safer, such as putting down gravel in one area which is otherwise full of mud or putting a fence around a river which children fear falling into. We also discussed the possibility of providing intensive education support for 12-16 year olds during the winter while the agricultural work they are frequently engaged in is not happening.
But the most tangible moment of hope came as we talked about how mothers could be better supported, and how some services could be provided for the youngest children, who otherwise have nothing. We had hoped that a really simple idea such as a regular parents group with toys provided for young children might help, but hadn’t realised that such meetings would be difficult in the refugee settlements.
However, as the women discussed the issue and thought about alternative solutions, suddenly, one of them – a seamstress – had an idea. If they could be provided with sewing machines and materials, and funding to construct a dedicated tent, then she could teach the other women how to sew and they would produce garments which they could sell to generate much-needed income. A practical action group like this would be possible.
At the same time, they would construct another tent to be used as a kind of day-care centre for the younger children, with the women taking it in turns to care for the children. The women would learn new skills and hopefully be able to better support themselves, at the same time as getting a chance to spend time together, and giving the children a chance to play and learn as well.
As this idea was spoken, it was as if suddenly hope was present in the room where it hadn’t been before – in a way you could almost see and touch.
There are many challenges involved in making this idea happen, and it doesn’t solve some of the bigger issues of the whole situation – but in that moment, hope was there and it changed everything.
Viva’s work in Lebanon is part of our growing work in the area of supporting children in emergencies, and we hope to increasingly be able to support work with churches and local organisations who are trying to help children affected by conflict and natural disasters.
This week I’m going back to Lebanon, and looking forward to seeing the progress in these projects – it’s amazing to have the chance to partner with this local church and community.
Kezia M’Clelland is Viva’s Children in Emergencies Programme Specialist