World Vision Lebanon
article • Monday, November 17th 2014

Bread or books, a difficult question for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon

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Samer* 14, works all day. He had to choose employment over education to help his family survive.

On the third day of a life-skills training, Samer*, a 14-year-old Syrian boy missed the bus that would take him to the World Vision educational centre. Heavy rains and a long distance were daunting.

Nevertheless, he was determined to get there on time for the training. He borrowed L.L. 1000 [0.5 Euro] from his grandmother. This got him half way to the centre in a taxi.  With soaked feet, he quickly walked the rest of the distance and made it to the training on time.

Samer lives with his older brother and mother and another Syrian refugee family of six people in a four metre by four meter tent. His father died when he was very young. Two years ago his family fled the war in Syria seeking refuge in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Today, they live in an informal tented settlement that is home to nearly 600 people.

“All I want is for my mother to be happy,” says Samer, who acts mature around her, but cries in private because he is not able to provide for her properly. “She is always sick and I will not accept that she begs on the streets,” he says.  “She is sick because she worries too much,” he adds.

“I carry the leftover vegetables and display them on the street to sell them. Whatever I make is better than nothing,” Samer says.  

Even though Samer’s mother did not ask or pressure him to find paid work to help support his family, he sells vegetables that are leftover in the field, after they are harvested. He does so with permission of the landlord. “I don’t steal,” clarifies Samer, immediately. “I carry the leftover vegetables and display them on the street to sell them. Whatever I make is better than nothing,” he says.  

In the Bekaa Valley and this tented settlement in particular, World Vision is implementing projects in a range of areas to provide help and support to meet the needs of refugee children, such as food, water and sanitation, protection and education, mainly funded by the donations from donors in Taiwan.  The project that Samer took part in aimed to empower children and youth by helping them develop positive attitudes and social skills as well as a good understanding of themselves and others.

“I know it’s not a school, but I learned so much,” he says, speaking of the life-skills training. “I love learning. I wish I [could] live in a school,” he adds.

Samer, is one of 86 children who participated in the training.

A 40-minute drive from Samer’s shelter lives another 14-year-old Syrian boy named Ali*. He and his family (his mother and two brothers) also fled the war in Syria and the circumstances have also forced him to choose bread over books.

“It is simple, if I don’t work, I cannot survive,” says Ali, speaking with the matter-of-fact nature of an experienced head of household. His employer, Marwan*, couldn’t agree more. “If he goes to school instead, who will provide for his old mother?” he asks, rhetorically. “You [can] help them once, maybe twice, eventually they need to work,” he adds.

"If I don’t work, I cannot survive,” says Ali

“He treats me like his son,” says Ali, whose thought was interrupted by clients who entered the shop. Ali rushed to serve them, humbly and quickly, either out of fear of losing his job or out of gratitude for having one.

The reality is that Ali multitasks at three adjacent small shops, all owned by Marwan; a library, an exchange office and a charcoal shop. He runs around from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. everyday, attending to all sorts of requests. In return, he earns, L.L. 160,000 (80 Euros) a month about one quarter of the minimum wage and not nearly enough for a family to survive on in Lebanon.

Impressively, Ali finds time to read from the books in the library, returning them once he finishes reading.

“I read so that I don’t forget what I learned the last nine years of my life in Syria...I refuse to forget what I have learned over the years,” says Ali.

“I read so that I don’t forget what I learned the last nine years of my life in Syria,” he says. “I refuse to forget what I have learned over the years,” he explains.

When asked about his future dreams, Ali smiled. “I may die tomorrow, or the day after,” he says. “I can’t dream of the future,” an answer that shows how the every day realities and pressures have shaped and formed his day-to-day outlook on life. 

*Names changed to protect the identity. 

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