Syrian students overcome isolation, language barrier

In 2012, 250 Syrian children joined Beirut’s Mohammed Shamel Public School. It was an unsettling time for all involved

Peter Harrison

Published: Updated:

In 2012, 250 Syrian children joined Beirut’s Mohammed Shamel Public School. It was an unsettling time for all involved - in some cases, the displaced children were even bullied.

It is a very different story four years later - to the untrained eye, it is impossible to tell which children are which. The school has 760 students aged three to 12, including 200 Syrians.

“I don’t like to refer to the children as Syrian or Lebanese,” the school’s director, Faten Edlby, told Al Arabiya English.

“They’re all students. We take an inclusive approach, and to identify the children separately would prevent that from happening.”

Lebanon has a chequered history of war, not least the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Many people are old enough to remember the fighting and Syria’s involvement.

This has left some in Lebanon with deeply-ingrained prejudices against their Syrian neighbors - prejudices that have been passed on to their children.

However, Edlby says the children from both countries are now getting along. Yes, she says, there are fights, but usually over something like a missing pen, or name-calling like children anywhere in the world.

She says she wants to extend the services the school provides in its English-language support services, but this will need further funding.

Connecting Classrooms

The school is running the British Council project Connecting Classrooms, which allows schools, staff and students to collaborate with their peers around the world.

Lebanon has the largest number of schools taking part in the Middle East and North Africa, with 56 international partnerships with UK schools, and more than 3,500 teachers and head teachers participating in the wide range of program activities, including professional development.

The aim is to help children worldwide ready themselves for an increasingly global community. In the case of the children at Mohammed Shamel Public School, this has seen them partnering with schools in the UK, even holding Skype video calls with students.

It is a way to help them understand children from other cultures, and in many cases discover that they share the same aspirations.

The children the Beirut school is teaching are no different from any you might find in a school in Dubai, the UK or United States - they are excited, interested in new ideas and filled with dreams for their futures.

Teacher Myassar Itani joined the school in 2008 and speaks throughout her classes in English. “It was difficult to reach the Syrian children when they first arrived,” she told Al Arabiya English.

She said she was not prepared for what it would be like. There were 250 children who gradually appeared through 2012. “It was disruptive,” she said.

“We had different reactions. Some of the students would say ‘oh he’s Syrian,’ because of conceptions their parents had. But then the students realized these were just children like them.”

Learning English

She said those who arrived from Syria did not speak English, which left them isolated from the rest of the class. She and her colleagues used a number of methods to get them to open up and learn English.

They then made an important yet seemingly simple discovery: “Most of the children liked English songs. They knew all the words, although they didn’t know their meaning.”

She said they started with short sections of songs, gradually teaching the children to speak, read and understand English. When Al Arabiya English was given exclusive access to Itani’s class, the children were being asked to use English critically.

They were told to think about rules that existed that they thought prevented them from succeeding and therefore could be broken. The exercise was based on the Greyson Chance song “Waiting Outside the Lines.”

Itani said: “I wanted the children to really think about why they should follow the rules, or if they wanted to break them, why. Is it something that’s going to make them move to something bigger, something better? It’s fine [to break the rules] - let them.”

The Syrian children in Itani’s class were all aged eight and nine when their families moved them over from their war-torn country. For the children it was a daunting experience.

Four years later, sitting in the school’s library, 12-year-old Fatima told Al Arabiya English in near-perfect English: “I want to be a doctor. I want to be able to help people who aren’t able to help themselves.”

She already has the caring streak - as her friend Tasnim spoke in broken English, Fatima explained that her friend wanted to be a golf instructor.

Fatima is in fact Lebanese, but spent her formative years in Syria, similar to her classmate Sara, who said she wanted to be a judge.

The levels of English the kids speak varies from Fatima, who has virtually no issue holding conversations, to Sara, who has found the language difficult to grasp.

Their teacher is confident all will eventually speak English without too much trouble - a far cry from the significantly richer UK, where there is concern over the lack of students learning foreign languages.