ASHRAF GANGRAKER joined an African Muslims Agency delegation from South Africa to attend the opening of a school in Lebanon which promises hope for Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian children.
It is said that, in order for dreams to come true, you must dream first. In the dusty, near-barren tented camps for Syrian refugees, where dreams have been shattered by the ravages of hunger, poverty and the need to survive, the Aman School of Excellence in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon is indeed a dream come true.
The Aman School of Excellence is an initiative of Africa Muslims Agency (AMA) – a school that will provide formal education for underprivileged Lebanese and Syrian, and Palestinian refugee children.
It was a momentous occasion when the school was officially opened on October 27, 2021. Dignitaries included the mayor of the local municipality and officials from the Lebanese Department of Education.
I was privileged to be part of the AMA delegation from South Africa, invited to attend the opening of the school. I also visited a number of the refugee camps on the borders of Palestine, Syria and in the Beqaa valley itself. To say that the living conditions are harrowing is an understatement.
The world watched in horror as the Syrian refugee crisis exploded onto our screens in March, 2011. The Syrian war has led to the largest refugee crisis as millions of people left their homes and poured into neighbouring countries. That heart-wrenching picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying face down in the sand as waves washed over his lifeless body on a beach in Greece, hammered home the plight of the Syrian refugees, and highlighted the fact that it is often children who are the real victims of atrocities.
Our collective hearts bled, we shed tears of anguish, we raised our voices in prayer and protest, and we donated funds generously in our attempts to alleviate the suffering of fellow human beings. However, ten years on from the start of the Syrian war in 2011, I contend that the Syrian refugees in Lebanon are now the forgotten people of the world. As a nine-year-old girl told me in the camps, ‘We are invisible. No one sees us or cares about us.’ The plight of the Syrian refugees in Lebanon has worsened as the country continues to slide into economic and political turmoil.
Food prices have skyrocketed and the UNHCR reports that between October 2019 and June 2021, the cost of food has increased by 404 per cent. The Lebanese currency had lost 85 per cent of its value with devastating effects on the Lebanese population. It has also made survival even more difficult for the Syrian refugees.
Allow me to paint a picture of what a camp, and life in the camp, is all about. The rudimentary structures are held together by planks onto which plastic sheeting is nailed to form rooms. The floors are often concrete or sandy stone. Most floors are covered by mats (carpet is too strong a word) or cardboard.
Most ‘homes’ consist of a single room wherein which the entire family sleeps. Often, that amounts to more than ten people. There is usually a small room that serves as a kitchen and part of the kitchen is the ‘bathroom’. Cooking is done on a fire outside the house. The tents are packed so close together that it forms a dizzying labyrinth where the residents themselves often get lost.
The refugees in these tented camps must pay rent to the owner of the land, their landlord. There is no ‘squatting’ for free. You have to pay rent; if you do not pay rent, you are evicted and your meagre belongings tossed onto the street. In one single year, the average rental increased from ten US dollars to one hundred US dollars; this while the average earnings are less than one dollar per day.
The tented camps are filled with hunger, poverty and despair. An air of helplessness rests heavily on the tents. My engagement with the adults in the camps often reduced me to tears for the depth of their suffering knows no limits.
Mothers told me of how they had to remove snakes that had crawled under the plastic onto the bodies of sleeping children; how they would often go for days without food; medical care is much needed but an extreme luxury.
AMA recently launched the BU campaign to provide female hygiene packs. Parents have resorted to begging, borrowing and rationing food portions. We handed out eggs, potatoes and oil at a number of camps. Potatoes, eggs, oil – basic food items that brought the biggest joy to the recipients. Many of the refugees told me that they last ate potatoes more than a year ago, and that they will make two eggs at a time to feed ten people. Cooking oil is more expensive than petrol. The refugees are dependent on aid from NGOs like AMA.
Notwithstanding the struggles of the parents, it is the children who suffer the most. The majority of them do not attend school. For too many parents, the choice is schooling or food to live. In the end, that is a simple choice. Girls from as young as nine are working in the fields of the landlord. Many girls get married between the ages of 13 and 16 to men considerably older than them; boys do manual labour.
These children are unable to read and write their names. I asked the little ones and the young teenagers what they wanted to be when they grow up, what their dreams are. Their responses shook me to the core. These beautiful, innocent children said, ‘We do not have dreams. They never come true. Dreaming is not for us.’ ‘We are mocked and ridiculed because we cannot read or write. The others ask if we are from this planet.’ ‘I go out at night and I look to stars and I ask Allah why did He put me here.’ ‘I wish I was dead.’
Overwhelmingly, the children are filled with anger, frustration and hopelessness. They see no future for themselves. Yet, they understand the need for schooling for they fully realise that education is the key to their futures. They all desperately want to go to school. The majority want to be teachers and doctors – teachers so that they can help other children read, and doctors so that they can care for the elderly.
Twelve-year-old Rukeya, who goes to school in the camps of Arsaal, told me, ‘I want to be a lawyer. What we have here is oppression and our basic rights are taken away. I want to fight this oppression and fight for the rights of the refugees because no one is fighting for our rights.’
It is in this context that the Aman School of Excellence must be seen. It is a beacon of hope, where children can dare to dream again, and have those dreams realised. If we were only to hand out food parcels, we would feed a family for a day, a week or a month. However, if we were to educate a child, we change the trajectory of that child’s life forever. As mentioned earlier, the Aman School of Excellence is an initiative of Africa Muslims Agency. However, by Allah’s grace, it is the generosity of primarily South African donors that has made it a reality.
The cost of educating a single child at Aman is R16 000 per annum. This includes school transport, books and the cost of tuition. It removes the onus from parents having to decide to feed or educate their children. The school is real, it exists. Teaching and learning has already commenced. The infrastructure is a full school building with classrooms, a hall, ablution facilities and an expanded playpark. The teachers are qualified Lebanese teachers, teaching the appropriate Lebanese curriculum with all the necessary certification and accreditation. At present, the school has 650 learners in Grades R to Grade 9.
The 650 learners need our help. In order to remain at school, they need to be sponsored. I urge you to be part of the dreams of a child. Speak to your friends and family, and sponsor a child. Your sponsorship will change their lives, and yours too. Visit www.africamuslimsagency.co.za or pop in at our offices for more information.
As little seven-year-old Su’ad told me, ‘Send me to school and I will make you proud of me.’ Who can possibly say ‘no’ to such a plea? When we one day stand in the Majestic Court of Allah Almighty – as we all will – and He asks us what we did to fulfil the dreams of an innocent child, what will our answer be? Be part of the One Child, One Dream movement. It is a movement to fulfil the dreams of a child and a movement towards a better you.
- Ashraf Gangraker is the Director of Oracle Academy High School in Ottery, Cape Town.
An abridged version of this article was first published in the December 3, 2020 print edition of Muslim Views.