Lebanon leads the way in showing mercy to those fleeing Syrian war

Lebanon, in crisis since its own civil war and now overwhelmed by one million Syrian refugees depends on charities like Home of Hope to cater for its countless street children, many of whom are forced to sell their bodies to survive, writes Victoria White

The Lebanese director Nadine Labaki made her Oscar-nominated film Capurnaeum about Beirut street children because she wanted to give these kids a voice.

She said: “I thought if I stay silent I’m complicit in this crime. And it is a crime that this is allowed to happen.”

I saw them all over the streets of Beirut at night, these kids. Some are selling flowers or polishing shoes. We know others are selling their bodies.

Having just come through its own civil war followed by a war with Syria, Lebanon is now host to perhaps one million Syrian refugees, one in four of the population.

Rahma, a school and hospital for children with special needs just outside Tripoli, is a state-of-the-art facility. It has several funding sources but state funding is 18 months behind.

Lebanon refuses to provide them with official refugee camps, partly because the camps they provided for Palestinian refugees from the 1940s on are still ghettos of horrendous poverty which helped destabilise Lebanon’s Christian to Muslim ratio before the civil war.

In Capurnaeum, Labaki has her 12-year-old street child, Zain, pretend to be a Syrian refugee in order to get food relief the Lebanese can’t get.

You might think she’s complaining about the presence of so many Syrians but the twist is that the real Zain Al Rafeea is a Syrian refugee she found on the streets.

Lebanon is in crisis, she’s says — ‘Capurnaeum’ means “Chaos”in Arabic.

Meanwhile, the world looks on.

That’s just what American Brady Black was doing, working as a teacher in Oman, until 2013 when a chance encounter at a party led him to Beirut to explore the possibility of running the Home of Hope shelter for homeless children.

I had never been around poverty before and suddenly I was seeing kids with scars and cigarette burns. Child prostitutes. I excused myself and I just cried.

Despite his reluctance, particularly as the Syrian War was “blowing up”, he and his wife Amber, both evangelical Christians, believed it was God’s plan for them to stay and work at Home of Hope.

With funders including Ireland’s Lebanon Trust, they now they have 13 full-time staff who are all Lebanese and include counsellors and psychotherapists as well as teachers and administrators.

In the summer they are poised to move to a big new facility in the mountains above Beirut.

Black loves Lebanon and its people, whose philosophy is “Eat, drink for tomorrow you may die”:

The Rahma school serves 200 Syrian refugee children with disabilities in northern Lebanon, but is aware of 800 more cases in the makeshift Syrian camps.

“My best hope”, he says, “is that Israel doesn’t blow us up. They ran fighters over us last week. Lebanon has no surface-to-air missiles. If they come I think I’ll just sit outside and drink whiskey.”

Home of Hope caters for 45 street children exactly like the ones featured in Capurnaeum.

Many of them have no official documents and don’t even know how old they are.

These kids celebrate their birthdays at the home on January 1, which makes for a huge event on that day and very few birthdays the rest of the year.

For most, it’s the first time they had a birthday. They all get their own cake and a big community cake to share.

“These little bitty beautiful things”, says Brady. “I tell myself, “Don’t you cry!” Most of the kids have never been in school before.

They’ve been picked up by the police while working on the streets, often for supremos like Charles Dickens’s Fagan, who cream off most of the proceeds of their begging or flower-selling or prostitution.

The Home of Hope offers the children a secure home and a morning educational programme, the Hope Academy, to complement the State’s remedial educational offering in the afternoons.

Apart from remedial academics, the Academy tries to teach the kids to understand “positional authority”— which means it’s not alright to just walk out of a class-room if you’re bored or frustrated.

Black is fully aware that the home has its critics because it is an institutional setting while fostering is favoured internationally for homeless children.

He fosters a teenage child himself. However, he argues that Lebanon, in crisis since the Civil war and overwhelmed by Syrian refugees, does not currently have the resources to run a good fostering programme.

While not specifically for refugees, the Home of Hope has many.

While on paper it is also not meant to take kids with intellectual or physical disabilities either, in practice, they do.

In one of the rooms, two gorgeous black-eyed Syrian kids, Ali, a boy of perhaps four, and Rashad, a girl of five, are playing on a climbing frame.

Ali doesn’t speak at all.

“He has seen something”, explains Brady. “I don’t know want to know what it is.” He does laugh, however, playing hide and seek with the writer until we are both hysterical. Then I ask to take his picture and he retreats, his face dark.

Your call, little Ali. No picture.

Little Rashad poses for a picture with my interpreter.

Lebanon interpreter Sarah El Said with Rashad in the Home of Hope, which caters for 45 street children, offering them a secure home and educational programme

A girl who has seen and heard more than anyone can tell, she calms her jangling sensory system by caring for the least interactive creatures she can find — snails.

There are times when it does help to know the context of a child, such as the time Black heard a boy making the pre-speech noises associated with deafness and thought he was making fun of a deaf child.

How wrong he was.

The child was imitating the noises his deaf sister made before their mother killed her in front of him.

Being a refugee makes life more difficult for homeless children.

Add a disability and a kid is running out of luck.

The oldest young man in Home of Hope may be in his early 20s but he is intellectually disabled and can’t explain who he is or where he comes from. It’s likely he’s Syrian or Palestinian.

The worst-off you can be, explains Black, is a homeless refugee. No matter how bad the situation is in the camps, the kids there are still part of family units.

He argues that the most disadvantaged children in Lebanon are the thousands of refugee kids neglected or abandoned by their parents, who work as beggars and are often sexually exploited and of these, the most disadvantaged are disabled children.

“They hang them up by their shoes and shake out all their money”, as Black says, “and that’s the best thing that can happen to them.”

Small country making a gigantic effort to help

Victoria White in a kindergarten, for Palestinian children at Beddawi Refugee Camp, where families have languished for years

Lebanon is a very small country, about a seventh the size of Ireland, with a population of over six million, over a million of them refugees.

Beirut, the capital, sits in the middle on the coast and inevitably attracts a large share of refugees, as does the Bekaa Valley between Syria and Lebanon.

While cities to the south, such as Tyre, are over-shadowed by the closeness of the Israeli border, Tripoli, to the north is dominated by the closeness of Syria.

The Syrian city of Homs is just 86km away.

As recently as 2014, violence between Alawite and Sunni Muslims spilled over the Syrian border into Tripoli. The beautiful city centre with a souk straight out of the Arabian Nights, is bounded by check-points manned by armed soldiers.

The city feels deserted. There is gun-fire both nights I visit.

My huge, empty hotel looks out on a business campus which was never built and in the nearby restaurant I am fussed over like a minor potentate with a complimentary dessert of Tripoli’s famous ‘Ghazl el Banet’ candy-floss ice-cream.

Did I mention Lebanese food, the best food I have ever had anywhere?

They seem to cling to it as an expression of their identity.

It helps keep intact the humanity they need to deal with their own challenges, as well as those of the thousands of Syrian refugees camping in the snowy mountains which are the city’s backdrop.

Nahla, kindergarten teacher at Beddawi refugee camp, Tripoli. Pictures: Victoria Whi

There is, unfortunately, a terrible echo of the Syrians’ experience in that of the Palestinians who still live in permanent camps in Lebanon, having lost their homes to the Israelis, mostly from 1948 to 1967.

Beddawi Refugee Camp, our first stop near Tripoli, is a shanty town of rubbish-strewn streets and hovels. You have to have hope, however, when you see Nahla’s face shining with the joy of loving and being loved in the block of flats which houses the UNRWA-funded kindergarten.

Born in the camp, and never blessed with her own children, it’s clear the kindergarten kids might all be her own.

She has four disabled children in her kindergarten and she tries to help their parents accept them by telling them that God made them as they are.

She has a particular soft spot for a four-year-old autistic boy called Mohammed, who everybody loves for his incredible “innocence” though he has good days and bad days. His sister, Amina, has a form of selective mutism, which means she doesn’t speak in certain situations.

Watching them do their ‘We are Palestinian’ dance, an able girl holding the hand of her much smaller and less able brother, is like a metaphor for the effort they will have to find inclusion in society.

The disabled kids are supported by a disability centre called CPL housed in a few cramped rooms in another block which struggles to cope with the refugee population but frequently runs out of basic medications.

By contrast, Rahma, a school and hospital for children with special needs just outside Tripoli, is private and a state-of-the-art facility. Founded by a family in 1985 it boasts facilities like an “Interactive Hall” with an interactive floor and table, with images which magically respond to the students’ touch, funded by a donation from a Gulf state.

On the day I visit, a massive load of snow has been delivered to form a mountain in the school play-ground and sahlab, a traditional sweet milk drink, is being served to all.

Those who are able are running up and down the mountain and pelting each other with snow-balls to the tune of ‘Let it Go!’ from Frozen.

Some can only watch from wheelchairs.

Batoul Lahlouh and Zuhur Meraabi, two five-year-old Syrian refugee girls who have autism, stay on the edges of the snow under the watchful care of their teacher, Mariam.

Zuhour keeps trying to climb the snow mountain and being pulled back while Batoul just runs endlessly in her own circles.

While Zuhour is described as living “in her own world”, Batoul frequently falls to pieces, crying and screaming and demanding the total attention of her teacher.

They don’t have any language or make eye contact.

They can’t feed themselves, dress themselves or even sit still in a chair.

Mariam, a teacher at a school for children with special needs, with Zuhur and Batoul, two Syrian refugees with autism.

Yet fate, in the form of a violent civil war, has assigned these two little babes to make-shift refugee camps in the freezing mountains above Tripoli.

They are among the luckier ones. The Rahma school serves 200 Syrian refugee children with disabilities in northern Lebanon, but is aware of 800 more cases in the makeshift Syrian camps.

The cases of which no-one is aware should perhaps be most in our thoughts and prayers, as the hard stars shine down on the snowy ridges above Tripoli.

Meanwhile, Rahma — which means “mercy” in Arabic — does what it can with UNHCR help, running eight buses for disabled Syrian children up and down from the mountains for afternoon classes.

Some of the children travel for hours, leaving home early in the morning and arriving home late at night.

Many Lebanese are indeed showing “rahma” to their displaced Syrian brothers and sisters, all the more notable given their own challenges and the Syrian incursions into Lebanon not much more than a decade ago.

The Rahma staff have exactly the same dream that we have for our disabled kids: inclusion.

They work tirelessly on mainstreaming more able kids, which often fails because the mainstream schools are not ready or charge prohibitive fees, higher for disabled kids than for others.

Rahma, free to the users, builds vocational skills, having their own graphic design studio and their own, student-run cafe. They have a scout troop, a choir, specialised basketball.

The facilities have several funding sources but state funding is 18 months behind.

If this goes on for more than another year, they will have to close.

This is unthinkable. Rahma could teach our best facilities a lot, even down to the fact that kids aren’t kicked out at 18 years because they’re suddenly supposed to be adults, but sometimes stay until they are 19 or 20.

Ages are mixed to make the most of ability in a class of kids with autism, with one high-functioning boy nearly climbing onto the table to be first to make the spelling and number pictures in a class of much older children.

Judicious mixing of disabilities works here. Strong memories include the class-room of Syrian refugee children shaking their percussion instruments until they find a regular beat and go pink with excitement.

I remember the smile on the tiny face of an intellectually disabled child when he realises he’s making music with a little Down syndrome girl perched high above him on a specialised wheelchair.

“Remember,” I scrawl in my notes as I try to be a fly on the wall.

It’s only now I’m back in Ireland I understand why this scene is important: it’s how we rebuild our humanity after the dehumanisation of war and displacement, by slowly and carefully planting smiles on the faces of the small and the weak.

Deafness is an added difficulty for the displaced, homeless and shell-shocked

FAID administrator Grace Dersahaguian teaching children at the Father Andeweg Institute for the Deaf (FAID) in Beirut.

“Today is a big day because Mohammed is back,” says Grace Dersahaguian, administrator of the Father Andeweg Institute for the Deaf in Beirut, Lebanon.

Mohammed (for reasons which will become obvious, I can’t use his real name) is 11 or 12-years-old. He is both deaf and a psychological casualty of the Syrian War. His mother is in Syria. He ended up begging on the streets of Beirut.

He was housed in an orphanage and attending the FAID school for his hearing impairment but he ran away.

Grace reckons he may have been made fun of by the other children because he is deaf and his speech is badly affected.

Today, after a year, he is back.

Mohammed is super-bright but had never been to school before he came to FAID.

He couldn’t read or count.

He was making real progress when he ran away and now, after a year on the streets, he has entirely forgotten what he learned.

He has also lost his fourth hearing aid.

“We can’t keep replacing them,” admits Grace, sadly.

“If he can behave here, it will be his salvation,” explains Pascale Khairallah, one of his teachers. “He can be a child. But we don’t know if we will be able to keep him here, because…” “Why?” Pascale searches her desk.

“You see that paper clip? He might use that as a weapon.” “Much worse than that,” says Grace and goes on to explain Mohammed suffered appalling abuse of some kind and their greatest fear is that he could attempt to abuse another child.

Anglican rector Fr Arie Andeweg founded the FAID school in 1957. The school has been actively supported by sponsors including the Irish Lebanon Trust, founded by ex-UN peacekeeper, Christy Kinsella, and the Irish-based Friends of FAID for over a decade.

“We don’t know,” she admits, “if we can keep him here.”

They will try because that’s FAID’s mission.

The school was founded in 1957 by an Anglican rector, Arie J. Andeweg, who had a deaf sister and compared her reality to those of deaf Lebanese men he saw being goaded like pack-mules in Beirut Harbour.

The school which still bears his name in the hilly suburbs of Beirut has been actively supported by sponsors including the Irish Lebanon Trust, founded by ex-UN peacekeeper, Christy Kinsella, and the Irish-based Friends of FAID for over a decade.

Every year, a group from Ireland, motivated by a love of Lebanon and desire to help its embattled people, travels to the school and those with construction skills undertake repairs.

The school has seen its numbers swell since the latest in Lebanon’s catalogue of troubles, the Syrian War.

There are now 26 UNHCR-supported Syrian refugees in a school with a total enrolment of about 80 between the ages of two and 18.

All have a hearing impairment though some have other disabilities as well, such as intellectual disability and autism, but these are not foregrounded because officially the Lebanese school system only allows one disability per child.

Not to mention a physical impairment, such as a hand blown up in a bombardment as in the case of one FAID child, or the psychological difficulties many face.

In one class of six-year-olds, including three Syrians, Grace explains they asked the kids to give back their books so they could be stored safely.

Jean Paul helping to clean up at the FAID school.

One little girl started crying and roaring and then completely lost control.

“Maybe she thought we were taking her book,” explains Grace. “She said, “You take my book and I will cut your hand off.” What little child thinks that? What has she seen?” Grace thinks there is a particular difficulty with accepting disability among Syrians.

If they see their parents fighting they think I’m the problem because I’m deaf. If I laugh with another teacher, they think we’re laughing at them.

Parents often beg the school not to teach their children to use sign language because that identifies them as deaf.

There is, in any case, no official Lebanese sign language.

Breaking into these kids’ prison of silence is the mission of the school but there are, according to the UNHCR, many thousands of deaf Syrian children living in tents in the Bekaa Valley who will never come to FAID.

This is why FAID’S latest initiative, supported by Ireland’s Friends of FAID and the Methodist World Development and Relief Fund, is an outreach programme which aims to teach parents of deaf children in makeshift tented camps that they can unlock their children’s potential, through Hened Ajoub, and a Lebanese woman with a hearing impairment, Maha Moussa.

Both have university degrees. One wears a veil and the other doesn’t.

Just by turning up they demonstrate to desperate Syrians that refugees can achieve in life and that being hearing-impaired needn’t hold their children back.

Children waiting to board buses to camps in Tripoli, Lebanon. Tripoli is the largest city in northern Lebanon and the country’s second-largest city.

Anton Scheele, who lives in Co Carlow, and is the child of Andeweg’s deaf sister, is supporting the outreach work for Friends of FAID. He explains how disadvantaged these refugees are, camping out in a country which has no official camps for Syrians and just wants them to go home.

These people are “shell-shocked, traumatised” and also “left behind”, while more able and better-off refugees often managed to move their lives forward, says Anton.

The hardest and the most important lesson to teach despairing parents, with a disabled child to add to their troubles, is they are capable of making a difference to their children’s lives and that these children are capable of succeeding.

Language is power and it is also psychological health.

He explains that a displaced child, perhaps even deafened by a bomb, can’t begin to process this horrific experience without being taught language.

Some of the deaf refugee kids may only have a few dozen words, not enough to rationalise their flight from everything they knew and their new life camping through winter snow and boiling summer in Lebanon’s countryside.

It’s no overstatement to say that watching Maha Moussa sitting in a smiling family group in a tent in the Bekaa Valley, teaching Malek, a 9-year-old deaf Syrian boy who has never been to school, to speak his own name, is like watching him being given the gift of life.

The community is accepting a new member. A mother is being given back her son.

In war, disabled, infirm suffer the most

Rahma — which means ‘mercy’ in Arabic — does what it can with UNHCR help, running eight buses for disabled Syrian children up and down from the mountains for afternoon classes.

He was standing in the trenches with gun-fire sounding all around him and he didn’t know what was happening. He began to shoot in the wrong direction.

He was intellectually disabled. He was courtmartialled and was executed.

I read about this soldier years ago, in Forgotten Soldiers, Stephen Walker’s account of the Irish soldiers who were executed for desertion by their own army superiors.

I can’t forget about him, particularly as I know there have been thousands like him, down through the years, casualties of their inability to understand in times of war.

From the research I have done, I have learned there is a clear “hierarchy of disability”, even in war-time: war veterans come first; civilians damaged by war, next; people who were already disabled before the war, last.

Of those, people with physical disabilities come before those with psychological, intellectual, and sensory disabilities, such as ADHD and autism.

I have been guilty of recognising this hierarchy myself.

While in Lebanon last month, studying the plight of refugee children with disabilities, I asked to be shown not just the everyday deaf children, but the children who had lost their hearing because a bomb exploded next to them. They make a story that is awful. And better.

Children who were born with sensory and intellectual disabilities, whose sufferings are often horribly multiplied by war and displacement, are people no-one wants to know about.

In the words of Save the Children’s Charlotte Balfour-Poole, “More often than not, they are a completely hidden population”.

Why that should be the case is interesting in itself.

Rahma could teach our best facilities a lot, even down to the fact that kids aren’t kicked out at 18 years because they’re suddenly supposed to be adults.

It’s true that disability is taboo in the Middle East and in many other emerging economies.

It’s also true that the survival of the fittest is the name of the game in times of war or displacement.

Disabled children can be a liability in dangerous situations: they typically make the journey to safety twice as long, according to development researcher, Brigitte Rohwehrer. Families that include a disabled member face increased danger when they flee.

I sometimes think the knowledge that some of our ancestors abandoned family members makes us more likely to ignore the plight of the disabled in times of war.

That shame is multiplied when a child is abandoned by a parent.

In extremis, families are prepared to abandon disabled members of all ages.

Human Rights Watch reported, in 2015, that 96 disabled people were left behind in the Central African Republic after anti-Balaka forces had stormed the villages of Banqui, Boyali, Yaloke, and Bossemptele. In the last village, 17 out of the 50 people abandoned had disabilities.

Hamamatou, a 13-year-old girl with polio, was abandoned by her family. Her brother tried to carry her to safety, but she told him to put her down and save himself. He left her under a tree and said he would come back for her if he survived.

Two weeks later, the soldiers found her and threatened to “finish her off”, but one soldier intervened and she survived to find safety in a Catholic mission.

Her brother never did come back.

Unicef has reported that when resources are scarce, aid workers will often focus their attention on people with the best prospect of being economically independent.

This attitude ignores the basic human rights of disabled people. It degrades us all.

The girls’ dorm Home of Hope. The home caters for 45 street children. With funders including Ireland’s Lebanon Trust, they now they have 13 full-time staff, including counsellors and psychotherapists.

The UK charity Syria Relief says it believes the ‘No-one left behind’ agenda, which has been adopted by the UN in the context of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, is beginning to force a political consensus on outreach to the disabled in fragile states.

The World Humanitarian Summit published a charter on disabled people in 2016 and this year will see the publication of new guidelines on including children with disabilities in humanitarian action.

Perhaps the most distressing stories are of the disabled children who are hurt, or even die, simply because they don’t understand what’s going on.

Rohwehrer has reported cases such as that of 19-year-old Amar Ahmad Mohamed, in Iraq, who had Down syndrome.

He was strapped into an explosive vest by men who pretended they were his friends.

It detonated in a polling station.

In Kenya, a boy with Down syndrome was stoned to death, because he did not answer when interrogated. In Israel, an intellectually disabled boy was shot dead because he didn’t obey a soldier’s instructions.

In my worst nightmares, those boys are my 17-year-old boy, who has autism and an intellectual disabilty.

I can’t bear to think what would happen to him if war or displacement hit, which is not impossible on a planet that is warming fast and running out of resources.

The empathy he has taught me is his gift to the displaced and disabled boys and girls I met last month in Lebanon.

Shock statistics

A load of snow delivered to form a mountain in the playground of Rahma, a privately funded school in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon.

  • The worldwide population of children aged 0 to 18 with disabilities is reckoned between 93m to 150m.
  • Four-fifths have little or no access to services
  • 5.3m Syrian children need human assistance and half of these are displaced.
  • The exact percentage of Syrian refugee children with disabilities is not known.
  • Of disabled Syrian children, roughly half are physically disabled, half have psychological/intellectual/sensory disabilities and 21% have a combination of disabilities.
  • 83% of Syrian children’s disabilities are congenital — 79% of those with physical disabilities and 91% of those with psychological/intellectual/sensory disabilities.
  • Of children in Syria needing rehabilitation services, 69% do not receive them
  • 78% have no access to assistive devices such as wheelchairs and hearing aids
  • 82% have no access to counselling
  • — Sources: Syrian Relief

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