Dima* and her sister invite us into their house. It is newly built and smells strongly of fresh paint, they have no furniture, only some thin mattresses on the floor. It is draughty and cold inside; the single pane windows do not provide sufficient insolation against the cold winter. Their five children, ranging in age from two to nine years, are excited by the food parcels and blankets we are carrying.
"We live here together, and pay 200 US dollars a month for two rooms and a kitchen. It's the cheapest place we could find; in the nearby town where we stayed for two months, we were paying 300 US dollars for just one room. We couldn't afford it", said Dima.
They come from Qaboun, one of the outlying suburbs of Damascus that has been severely damaged during the last few months. Over the summer they fled Qaboun, first to Damascus and finally to Lebanon.
"It wasn't easy coming here, leaving Qaboun was difficult. But they were destroying everything, so we had to leave. We left with just our suitcases and took a taxi to Damascus. But we didn't feel safe there either".
Every day their two husbands go out to find work, usually casual labour, which is rarely guaranteed due to the high number of Syrians and Lebanese vying for the same jobs. Between Dima and her sister, they take care of five children – four girls and one boy.
Inaccessibility to education. "I want them to go to school, but it's so far away. I can't afford the cost of transport. It's also difficult because here they speak French or English at school. My children won't understand anything", explained Dima's sister.
A critical problem facing Syrian children in Lebanon is that the education system uses French or English as the language of instruction, with Arabic only reserved for language courses and sometimes history lessons. Conversely, in Syria the education system is entirely in Arabic.
A rapid needs assessment carried out in late 2012 by the UN children's fund in Lebanon (UNICEF) and Save the Children also cited language barriers as the principal obstacle for Syrians in Lebanon. The report found that most Syrians would like their children to learn either French or English as they see it as a "chance for upward mobility".
"I used to get top grades in class in Homs – I'm not stupid. But now, I cannot understand anything in class. I don't speak French, and everything, except for history, is in French. I still keep going to school though, I will learn French eventually", explained 16-year old, Hamoudi.
In addition, the Lebanese education system is unable to cope with the influx of Syrians across the border. More than 160,000 Syrians are officially registered with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon and a further 71,358 are awaiting registration. This number is increasing rapidly as up to 3,000 Syrians are crossing the borders daily to Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
Yet it is estimated that the actual number is significantly higher, as many Syrians do not register due to fear and a lack of understanding of the benefits of registering with UNHCR.
Reaching out to the most vulnerable. JRS Lebanon is currently assessing the needs of Syrians in very remote border areas in the Bekaa Valley, where small villages host up to 60 Syrian families who do not receive any support from local or international organisations.
"In Kafar Zabad we found up to five families living in one small house. No one is helping them there; this village is very small and also very poor. The local community can barely offer them anything. And it's so remote, that no one else [other NGOs] knows there are even Syrian families living there", explained JRS Lebanon staff member, Shadi.
Shadi, himself a Syrian who was displaced months ago, heard about these families through word of mouth – the fastest form of communication amongst displaced Syrian communities.
Despite poverty and a lack of resources, the local community has offered JRS the use of a community hall for educational purposes.
"It's a good facility, we would be able to partition it into smaller areas, and each area could be one classroom".
Until the needs assessment is completed, there will not be a final decision as to which curriculum JRS Lebanon will use – Syrian or Lebanese. If the Lebanese curriculum is used, teams will need to organise remedial classes in English and French to enable the children to enrol in the Lebanese system in the future.
"The crucial thing is we get the children back into a schooling system. Some of these children have missed out on more than a year of school already. Going to school also restores a sense of normality for them and is an important step in helping to cope with trauma", said a JRS staff member.
The JRS presence is Lebanon is the most recent in the region. After needs assessments were carried out in late 2012, the office was opened in mid-November. Currently activities are operational in remote areas of the Bekaa valley and in Beirut. Up to 350 families receive direct support from JRS Lebanon, with a plan to expand services throughout 2013.
Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East and North Africa Communications Officer
* This name has been changed to protect the identity of the person involved.
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