BEIRUT: A frank discussion Monday with Education Minister Marwan Hamadeh summed up the struggles facing U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in getting more aid for Lebanon. Not only does he have to persuade the international community to part with the necessary cash, he also has to convince Lebanon’s leaders to accept it.
Speaking of a meeting the day before, Grandi told Hamadeh that “the president [Michel Aoun] said, ‘Well, if we ask for more assistance people will stay here,’” in an apparent reference to international funding and support for refugees.
He assured the education minister that he considers the education of Syrian refugee children “much more as an investment for the future.” After all, Grandi noted, “This is the generation that hopefully will go back to their country and rebuild it again.”
He and Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF, were visiting various sites around the Bekaa valley to support their appeal for further aid to Lebanon, whose infrastructure is under huge strain as a result of the Syrian refugee crisis.
Fore and Grandi began their visit, which fell on International Women’s Day, at an informal settlement in Baalbeck, where the struggles facing many of the women and children in the refugee community were laid bare.
“As the deadly conflict in Syria prepares to enter yet another year, it continues to leave children homeless, uneducated and traumatized,” Fore said. “Young girls, in particular, have seen their hopes of a better future crushed, as more and more of them are forced to work or marry instead of going to school. In Lebanon alone, 40 percent of Syrian women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before they turned 18, becoming wives and mothers while still children themselves.”
She noted that some of the women wanted basic tools that would enable them to support themselves and give them greater participation in the local community.
“Some mentioned they’d like the tools to be able to sew so there are lots of ways that the members of these communities can help the local community and work with them,” she said.
One of the settlement’s residents, Khatem Mahmoud Abd al-Sharah, from Raqqa, voiced her appreciation of international efforts: “We need people to help us ... we are grateful for their efforts.” However, she noted: “They didn’t promise anything to us.”
Others were less positive about their situation. Abd al-Karim Druis, also from Raqqa, said he felt in the early days of the Syrian crisis there had been some respect for Syrian refugees, but now, “they [the Lebanese] want us to leave by any means possible.”
Fore and Grandi also visited a public school in Bar Elias – which hosts a large population of Syrian refugees relative to the host community – later Monday afternoon, where they were joined by Hamadeh. The pair saw the enthusiasm of many of the school children, who read stories, danced and demonstrated their ability on the basketball court. Nevertheless, they also heard directly about the severe strain on the education system.
“We don’t have enough commitments for the forthcoming year,” Hamadeh said. He noted that the burden of so many extra students put the education of Lebanese children at risk. “We cannot let the poor Lebanese students out of school while the same poor Syrian students are admitted,” he said.
Sonia Georges El Khoury, a program manager at the Education Ministry, was forthright. “We have increased our numbers [of non-Lebanese students] by 13 percent compared to last year. At the same time the [funding] gap is still the same,” she said.
“Our target for next school year will be 175,000 non-Lebanese so unless we have the financial commitment we won’t be able [to provide education services].”
In light of upcoming donor conferences, Grandi is hoping to get Lebanese officials – including Hamadeh – to be more vocal in their requests for more aid. Referencing his meeting with the president, Grandi told Hamadeh, “I am encouraging him to say more, that you need these resources.”
While he clearly hopes for more vocal support from Lebanon’s top officials, Grandi has his next steps in mind. “Much as we admire this model of generosity ... we should not take it for granted, and both Henrietta and I are going to go back and say to the international community Lebanon needs more support,” he said.