Ex-fighters help Syrian, Lebanese students reconcile in the Bekaa
A group of former fighters from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war are working with schools to help combat prejudices and discrimination
A group of former fighters from Lebanon’s 15-year civil war are working with schools to help combat prejudices and discrimination that have arisen from the Syrian refugee crisis.
Nearly 2 million Syrians have crossed the border into Lebanon. Some have been lucky enough to find jobs and school places for their children, but many have received a hostile reception from at least some of their Lebanese hosts.
In 2012, Aya was just seven years old, living with her family in their home in Hama, Syria. In her own words, she had lots of toys and her own bedroom. She was proud to have her friends round to play.
Then her life changed. “Our home was robbed, burnt and then bombed,” she told Al Arabiya English at Ghaza Public School in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon.
She explained how she and her family initially traveled to Byblos in Lebanon to flee the fighting, but were met with a hostile reception. “People weren’t nice.”
They decided to relocate to the picturesque Bekaa valley. Although she said people were friendlier there, she recalls the younger son of the landlord of the property they moved into.
“He used to spit at me, and say horrible things like we’d have had nowhere to live if his family hadn’t provided them with a home,” she said.
“But my parents were paying for us to live there. It wasn’t as though we were taking anything from them. He made me angry - I wanted to hit him.” She did not, she said, but only because her parents pleaded with her not to.
Aya was one of the lucky ones. She got a school place - there are at least 200,000 Syrians of school age living in Lebanon who have no access to education.
Schools have faced challenges. “Before the crisis we had problems,” Ghaza Public School director, Khansa Hemdaniah, told Al Arabiya English. The school currently educates 200 Lebanese and 920 Syrian children.
“But then things got worse. There was a lot of discrimination between the Lebanese and Syrian children. In some cases, children even brought knives to school.”
No one was seriously hurt, she said, but some were cut in the fights, and the children did not always calm down straight after they were separated.
Fighters For Peace
In a bid to combat hostility, the school is working on a pilot scheme in partnership with the British Council. Fighters For Peace, an NGO that was created by former fighters from all sides of Lebanon’s civil war, visits classrooms to spread a message of tolerance and inclusion.
Co-founder Badri Aboudiab was 14 when he was trained to fire a gun. From 1982 until 1992, he fired heavy weapons at his apparent enemy.
“At the time, I felt proud of what we were doing,” the 52-year-old told Al Arabiya English. “But after the war, I met a number of people who explained to me what they’d lost as a result of the war - their homes, friends, loved ones - and I started to question what we’d done.”
He said he wanted to give back to people for what he, and others like him, had done to them. Now he visits schools in the hope of getting pupils to see the positives in each other, rather than bully and fight.
In a classroom, some 25 children take part in role-play exercises and discussions aimed at creating an inclusive environment, guided by Aboudiab.
The students are just a few years younger than he was when he first picked up a loaded weapon and was trained to kill. The exercises seem simple - boys are separated from girls and encouraged to play games, then the girls are asked how the exclusion made them feel.
Children are told to separate into groups because of hair length (some wear veils) and the color of their clothes. They are again encouraged to discuss how they felt about being divided.
“Why would you bother getting us in the class if you’re going to prevent us from taking part?” one girl asks.
At that moment, the students hold up their hands, eager to speak. “It’s wrong to exclude people,” they say loudly.
For Aboudiab, the lesson is a success, but it is just the start. “It’s great to see these children gradually come together. They’re the same age as my own children. I teach my kids the same as I do the ones in the classroom.
“When I was fighting, I thought I was a king. I was proud of what we were doing, but as I met people who were impacted by the war, I began to understand that nothing was achieved by the fighting - many lives were hurt.
“I do this work for forgiveness for what we did in the past. If I can impact just one life, showing that war achieves nothing, then I’ll be happy.”
There are signs of improvement in the views of students in the Bekaa valley. Speaking after the class, 11-year-old Lebanese boy Ahmed says his views of the refugees have changed.
“I didn’t like them when they first arrived,” he told Al Arabiya English. “But I now have more Syrian friends than Lebanese, and I’m happy they’re here.”
In the class, the students were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. Ahmed said he wanted to study pharmacy. His Syrian classmate Aya said she wanted to be a lawyer.
Speaking with a large smile, she spoke about how things were better: “I have many friends now, I like school, I like living in Lebanon - I feel it’s my home.”
However, she does not forget the past: “Everyone says I’m a smiley person, I always look happy, but inside my heart is broken. Syria was my home. We lost everything.”