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A staggering half a million Syrian children are living as refugees in Lebanon having endured years of untold violence, suffering and hardship. It is a life that no one so young should have to experience - leaving everything behind including precious loved ones and cherished belongings, to begin a daunting new life in an alien country.
Concern’s Darren Vaughan met one orphaned Syrian boy and a former teacher, who recount how they were brought together in adversity.
“When I grow up, I would like to be an engineer,” 11-year-old Bashir tells us. “That was my mother’s wish before she died, so I would be doing it for her.”
Bashir was orphaned five years ago while living in Lebanon – the country where he and his mum had sought refuge. After the death of his father, life back in their home city in Syria had become unbearable and dangerous. It was then that his mum decided they should make the journey to Lebanon. But sadly, not long after reaching their destination, Bashir’s mum fell ill and died.
Bashir found himself on his own – without family and alone in a strange land.
That is when former teacher Mona intervened. She had been through a similar experience as a refugee – fleeing conflict in her home city in Syria, and was living in the same informal tented settlement as Bashir in the Akkar region of northern Lebanon. A mix of coincidence and instinct brought them together.
We both share the same family name but come from different cities. I decided to look after him because something inside of me made me want to care for him like a mother.
At 34 years of age, Mona had already lost two children prematurely - a genetic disorder means she is at high risk of miscarrying. “Unfortunately, I cannot access the treatment I need in Lebanon,” she says. “I have no chance of having a child while I’m here. That’s why I’m raising Bashir as my own.”
As we sit cross-legged on the floor of their tarpaulin-draped tent, Bashir reveals that he enjoys playing soccer and video games with his Lebanese neighbour who is the same age, before Mona returns with fruit juice prepared for us to share - a simple act of human kindness.
She reminisces about her former life as a primary school art teacher in Syria, and how shortly after leaving the country in 2013, she learned that her school had been destroyed. Mona does not know what became of the children she once taught. But one thing she is sure of, she will never forget their names and faces.
Her knowledge and skills are still being put to good use. Up until last year, Mona volunteered with Concern to teach art classes in the nearby settlements. Along with psychosocial support and child-friendly spaces provided by Concern, the art sessions were an effective way to help children deal with the psychological effects of trauma.
Almost half a million Syrian children like Bashir live as refugees in Lebanon. Leaving everything behind – family, friends and belongings – has had a profound impact on many. Beginning life in a new country requires a huge adjustment. For most refugee children, the process is all the more daunting because of the circumstances under which they fled their country. Many carry deep emotional scars of conflict.
One challenge faced by refugee children is language and literacy. While Arabic is the common language across the Middle East, science and maths lessons in Lebanon are conducted in French and English — unfamiliar languages for many Syrian children. That is something Bashir, now in fourth grade in primary school, has had to learn to adapt to. Even subjects he is strong in can be a struggle: “I’m good at maths in Arabic but not in French,” he confides.
Another obstacle faced by many is the loss of legal documentation and identification. An estimated one in four Syrian refugee children in Lebanon under the age of five are unregistered, and are unable to access social support services. At present, Bashir’s uncle is attempting to register him with the UNHCR as a separated family member. If successful, Bashir’s wish is, nonetheless, to remain with Mona - so close is the bond between both.
Like many refugee families living in Lebanon, the rising cost of rent and poor living conditions have forced them to relocate regularly - a precarious and unsettling existence for refugee children. Mona and Bashir have moved three times in the past few years. Thankfully, Concern has supported them twice by providing a shelter kit to help them resettle.
In between chats, Bashir goes off to fill a bucket of water - one of his daily household duties. Cleverly, he makes use of a wheelbarrow to transport the water container from the community storage tank, which Concern installed a few months ago, along with two latrines and a septic tank for the 10 refugee families who live in the settlement.
When he returns, we ask Bashir what it is like living with a teacher? Does it give him an advantage over his classmates? “When I was younger,” he admits, “Mona used to help me with my homework. But now, I study by myself.”
This energetic young boy is charting his own path to independence and adulthood, thanks to the support and care he receives from Mona. In return, the joy and happiness he brings to her is something any mother - or carer - would be proud of.
Names have been changed to protect identities.
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