The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is growing week by week. Young Syrians in Beirut have founded an organization to provide refugee children with a kindergarten.
Mohammed cannot imagine what daily life would be like without the kindergarten. Five days a week, the five-year-old walks with his older sister or his mom through the alleys of the Beirut district of Sabra. He crosses the busy main road and disappears into a long and dark house entrance. He heads to a kindergarten for Syrian refugee children by the name of "Amaluna" (Our Hope), located in the ground-floor of a multi-storey building. There, Mohammed meets children of the same age and is taught basic mathematics, reading and English, according to the Lebanese preschool model.
Finding shelter in Sabra
Mohammed's family comes from the city of Daraa in Southern Syria. His mother fled with her five children to the neighboring country before the war broke out. Other children in "Amaluna" are from Homs, the areas surrounding Damascus or the northern Syrian province of Idlib.
It is no coincidence that many Syrian refugees ended up in Sabra. In this impoverished district, inhabited by low-income Lebanese and Palestinians, rents are lower than elsewhere in Beirut.
The kindergarten "Amaluna" care for about 70 preschool-aged children. There is also a long waiting list. Palestinian social worker Nabila has been a staff member since foundation of the kindergarten in November, and heads one of the three classes.
Nabila often interacts with Syrian families in Sabra and the surrounding areas. She notices that many family members simply sit around, and do not attend school or kindergarten.
Nabila explains that part of the reason is due to overcrowding at both Lebanese facilities and those operated by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
"I thought we had to do something about it," says Nabila, adding that she thinks it very important the kindergarten be located in the immediate proximity of the refugee's lodgings, since many parents are either afraid to send their children into other parts of town - or simply cannot afford transportation.
The 22-year-old Maryam also works at "Amaluna." The education student from the Syrian city of Idlib has been living in Sabra with her brothers for a couple of months.
The 22-year-old Maryam also works at "Amaluna". The education student from the Syrian city of Idlib has been living in Sabra with her brothers for a couple of months. But the second-year student at the university in Idli was not able to continue her studies in Beirut. Working at the kindergarten has therefore become welcome practical experience. "I can help the children," she said.
Maryam and Nabila have tenderly decorated the kindergarten. The door leading to Mohammed's classroom is now adorned with a car made out of multicolored cardboard and Crêpe paper. Letters and numbers in different hues are glued to the pink-and-yellow painted walls.
"Amaluna" is an unusual project, resulting from Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian cooperation. Staff and volunteer workers come from Palestine and Syria. The Palestinian Organisation Popular Aid for Relief and Development provided the rooms, while a Syrian doctor pledged to attend to the children every week in the kindergarten.
With the help of Lebanese friends, Syrian activists founded an organization for fundraising and other long-term means of financing the project. One of the Syrian founders is Rami.
"The biggest problem consisted in gaining the trust of the Syrian families," said Rami. According to him, many families are distrustful, thinking Rami and his friends represented a political faction.
"Some of them were so intimidated that they became suspicious when we asked them for their names," Rami said. Only slowly did they learn to trust the young Syrian. Direct contact was of the utmost importance, Rami explained: "We reached out to the people, visited them in their lodgings and asked them what they needed."
But also the Syrian activists had to go through a learning process. They had no experience in how to found an organization, draft a budget or raise funds. "But the revolution put us in a situation where we had to do it," said Rami.