BARJA, LEBANON–Anita Toutikian stands alone in a bare-bones classroom, huddled over a table covered in art supplies. She carefully arranges paint bottles and brushes, and sets out a sleeve of plastic cups for pallets.
In a few minutes, 22 students, five of whom are Syrian refugees, will burst into this room for a two-hour art therapy session. Toutikian, a working artist and a clinical psychologist, is there to help alleviate tensions between the refugees and their Lebanese classmates. According to the UN, at least 1.3 million Syrians refugees are currently living in Lebanon, which has led to a crisis-level strain on resources that impacts virtually every facet of society – and education is no different. This is the second time Toutikian has come to the Barja Technical School, a secondary school in this costal town 30 minutes south of Beirut. The first time the students all drew a figure – a firefighter, to be specific – individually. But today the students will be painting in groups.
Barja Technical School is one of the hundreds of schools in Lebanon that are struggling to accommodate the nationwide surge of Syrian children into the Lebanese school system, which the UN has called “under served prior to the Syria crisis.” As a result, Syrian children all over Lebanon are facing a crippling lack of access to education. A recent UN report found that only 22 percent of school-age children are receiving a formal education. “The Syrian influx has increased the demand on the limited public school places by almost 134 per cent,” according to the report.
“There’s an education crisis,” in Lebanon, says Amnesty International’s Lama Fakih. And that current crisis could result in a heightened susceptibility to recruitment to violent groups. “When you talk about a person’s ability to care for himself and his family and have a fulfilling life, obviously the opportunities are very limited without an elementary education,” adds Fakih.
Even those who are enrolled in school face significant barriers. Lebanese classes are often taught in either French or English, which most Syrians don’t speak. That’s an issue at the school in Barja. “This is one of the challenges, but teachers who teach languages are helping with this, are working with Syrians,” says Haifa Abu Hader, who works for the school. “It’s not easy. They’re very brave,” he says, referring to the harassment Syrians often encounter in schools across Lebanon. Prejudice against Syrian children and even some teachers is a growing concern for the U.N. Refugee Agency. “Syrian girls and boys face blatant discrimination, bullying and violence,” the agency noted in a recent report. “Violence against boys can be serious—in Mount Lebanon a 13-year-old was hospitalized after being beaten up outside his school.”