The voices get louder with each step up the stairs. We reach the landing and come across a crowded corridor of families: babies crying in their mothers’ arms, clusters of women talking in low voices, men standing alone smoking or thumbing through documents.
Young girls wait patiently and quietly, lined up on a row of chairs, while even younger children run up and down the next flight of stairs, shouting and laughing.
We’ve come to the school registration centre run by Save the Children’s partner organisation in Bar Elias. It’s a town with an ever-growing refugee population in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, only a handful of kilometres from the Syrian border.
Confined to cramped homes
We step inside the centre and are greeted by Ahmad, Save the Children’s field officer for the region. He explains that families come here to register their children for school, and that more and more are coming every day. “These children have already been out of school for over a year,” he says.
Many have been in Lebanon for months now and spend their days confined to their new homes – often crowded apartments shared with other refugee families.
“Children are staying at home, watching the news all the time, seeing what’s happening in Syria,” says Ahmad.
This continued exposure to violence and insecurity in their home country doesn’t help children’s sense of safety and can hamper their emotional and psychological recovery.
A security problem
Ahmad introduces me to one family who have made it to the front of the line, their documents in hand. Nine-year-old Aya and her mother have come to register with Aya’s sister Salwa, six, so they can both return to school. The mother explains that Aya has been out of school for well over a year.
“It was a security problem,” she says. “Every time someone was killed, the schools would close. Sometimes armed men would come and tell us to go and take our children out of school, otherwise they would kill them.” She clasps her hands together and looks down at the floor, remembering the hardships of the past year.
Top of the class
Looking up and over at her eldest daughter, Aya’s mother tells me she was the top of her class. Her voice is tinged with pride for her daughter and sorrow over the need to pull her out of school, away from her education. The family was lucky enough to have time to bring their documents with them, and Aya has kept her report card from Syria.
The nine-year-old pulls out the card to show me, and begins listing all the different subjects she used to study. Her grades really are top of the class, with full marks for everything from English and Arabic to maths and science, and even for behaviour.
Aya was a stellar student whose education has now been interrupted due to the conflict and insecurity that have raged for 18 months.
A new beginning
Together with over 2,000 other refugee children, Aya and Salwa will receive free school bags, books, stationary and school uniforms. They will also benefit from a new Save the Children scholarship programme enabling refugee families to enrol their children without paying the school fees many families simply cannot afford.
Aya’s name is called and the mother and daughters stand up. The wait has ended and the girls are now to be registered. Aya steps forward tentatively, her smile growing in anticipation.
The stellar student will now – finally – get to go back to school.