Dreams on hold for Syria refugee students in Lebanon

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Forced by Syria's war to sit her secondary school diploma exam in northern Lebanon, Riham Othman, 19, bursts into tears, fearing the Lebanese authorities will never recognise the test results.

Worse still, she dreads her dream of becoming a journalist may also never come true.

Her eyes fixed on the desk, Othman's anxiety is written all over her face.

"I know that when I finish my tests, no university will accept me," says Othman, who lost a year of schooling to Syria's war.

"I feel like my whole future is ruined, including my dream of becoming a journalist," she says, breaking into tears.

In Tripoli, north Lebanon's largest city, Othman is one of 600 Syrian students who are following Lebanon's high school curriculum, thanks to an Islamic charity.

Most of the students sitting the exam fled the war-ravaged central Syrian province of Homs for Tripoli.

Many came without identity cards, and others had no proof they had passed any exams while still in Syria.

They fear that because of this the Lebanese authorities may not recognise their finals.

"The exams will be corrected and then passed on to (Syria's main) opposition National Coalition, which will see whether they can be recognised," said Zakaria Sabbagh, who heads the Islamic Education charity's teaching section.

Sabbagh's association is linked to Lebanon's Jamaa Islamiya, the country's branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Students are sitting their tests in two schools that also depend on the Jamaa Islamiya, which backs the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad in neighbouring Syria.

Othman's difficulties are further compounded by problems adapting to Lebanon's curriculum.

"Exams are harder, there is a difference between Syria and Lebanon. Here, we need to analyse, whereas in Syria, we just learnt everything by heart," she says.

Like several other refugee children, Othman also faces linguistic obstacles. In Syria, the sciences are all taught in Arabic, while in Lebanon they are taught in English and French.

The charity working to assist the children has tried to help overcome the difficulty.

"We translated the materials for these subjects into Arabic," says Sabbagh.

But no amount of work can erase the trauma the young students have faced.

"They have psychological problems. Some of them have lost their parents, others saw their houses destroyed, and (many) had to face extreme difficulties to leave their country," says Umm Tareq, a school supervisor.

The United Nations says there are more than 530,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon. More than half are aged under 18.

Despite the despair, students try to hold up, with middle school students taking their exams in another hall -- the atmosphere just as tense.

"There's another three years to go before we go to university. By then, we'll know what fate holds for Syria and whether we can go home," says Nour al-Tahla, from the central city of Homs.

"I want to be a doctor, because that was my brother's dream. He was killed at the start of the revolt. I will become a doctor and I will help my country," she says confidently.

Among the refugee boys, there is a spirit of camaraderie.

"Most of us are from Homs, but we didn't know each other before. Tragedy and our uncertain futures united us," says Omar al-Haddad, 18.

Adel Tayban, 16, comes from Hama in central Syria. He dreams of becoming an engineer.

For now, he sits for his exam and smiles when asked whether he is managing with Lebanon's curriculum.

"I'm used to sleeping in a small room, and to queue for food for hours. I have lost my house. All I have left are my studies," says Tayban.

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