More than a Classroom
By: Angie Thadani
In June, I travelled to Lebanon to plan for our program’s 2022-2023 school year. Being relatively new to the Luminos Fund, I was excited to visit our Lebanon classrooms for the very first time and meet with our students, teachers, and community partners. I know how impactful a classroom can be for children who have experienced war, displacement, and suffering from my time leading the United Nations Relief and Works Agency’s emergency education program in Lebanon.
In places like Lebanon, classrooms are much more than a place to learn. They can often be the only source of safety, stability, and community that children know. Since 2017, Luminos has been working with community-based organizations to support out-of-school Syrian refugee children in Lebanon —both academically and emotionally— so they can catch up to grade level in safe, welcoming classrooms and prepare to advance into Lebanese government schools.
Angie Thadani, Luminos Senior Director of Programs
In places like Lebanon, classrooms are much more than a place to learn. They can often be the only source of safety, stability, and community that children know.
Looking out from the plane window and seeing the Beirut skyline, my excitement turned to apprehension. Lebanon has come to be a second home for me, filled with special memories. I had a picture of what Lebanon was in my mind that I was anxious to preserve. Lebanon is no stranger to crisis. It has experienced over 15 years of war, occupation, and several rounds of economic and political collapse. However, to me, the country and its people have always exuded an extraordinary resilience and hope that has made Lebanon feel so special. I was nervous to see what friends had described as a “drained and changed” Lebanon.
of Lebanon's population has been pushed into poverty
Syrian refugees live in Lebanon
The last three years of economic crisis, compounded by COVID-19, the 2020 Beirut Port explosions, and political instability has pushed over 80% of the population into poverty, with disproportionate consequences for Syrian refugees. Lebanon, home to the largest number of refugees per capita, hosts an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees. The UN estimates that nine out of ten Syrian refugees are living in extreme poverty.
I spent my first evening visiting my Syrian friend Mariam and her family. On my way to Mariam’s home, the streets seemed unfamiliar. Usually bustling with activity, neighborhoods were now eerily quiet and dark. So many of my favorite places had shut down.
Mariam shared how difficult the last few years have been for her: “I’ve never seen the situation this bad before. I do not know one person who hasn’t felt the impact of the last few years,” she sighed sadly.
The sharp devaluation of the Lebanese pound has made basic food items out of reach. Mariam has had to make hard choices about when and how to feed her family, and each day brings new unknowns. With all the challenges she faces, Mariam still describes herself as one of the lucky ones—she has been able to send her children to school.
of Syrian refugee families had to stop their children’s education in 2021
In 2021, 35% of Syrian refugee families had to stop their children’s education, and the barriers to education are only increasing. Public schools are overwhelmed and under-resourced, families can no longer afford transportation costs, and Syrian children lack the basic language, reading, and writing skills to join the education system.
As I listened to Mariam, I could not help but think about our students and the daily challenges they must also face. The next morning, I travelled to the Beqaa region to visit our classrooms. Beqaa is home to Lebanon’s largest number of registered refugees. I arrived just in time to see children pouring out of school buses, greeting their friends and teachers with smiles and giggles.
Against the backdrop of what had been a difficult evening with Mariam, entering our classrooms the next day felt like a different world. Walls were covered in colorful artwork and lessons were filled with laughter and song.
Teacher Taghreed and her students laughing. Teachers like Taghreed work hard to create joyful classrooms that serve as an oasis for Syrian refugee students, providing a safe space to learn and play. (Photo: Chris Trinh for the Luminos Fund)
It was snack time when I entered one classroom, and a young boy named Ahmed greeted me excitedly in English. He offered me his seat and a bite of his sandwich, which I politely declined, before wrapping part of it up to take home for his brother and sisters. His teacher, Layal, told me that Ahmed could not communicate in English at all a year ago. Ahmed grinned proudly and showed me his exercise book filled with notes and drawings about his family and friends. On days that Ahmed is not in the classroom, he works with his father. For up to 23 hours a day, Ahmed has no electricity in his home that he shares with two other families. Against the enormous challenges that he faces daily, it struck me how thoughtful, kind, and cheerful Ahmed was.
At Luminos, our first priority is ensuring the well-being of our students. Our teachers in Lebanon have invested much of the last year rebuilding good classroom practices that children had forgotten as a result of learning remotely during the COVID-19. So many children have had to be re-taught how to listen to others, how to share and care for each other, and most importantly, how to play and be children again.
In a context like Lebanon, finding precious moments to be a carefree child can be life-changing. Before saying goodbye to Ahmed, I asked him what he wanted to be in the future. He told me he wanted to be superhero. He flexed his muscles and said, “My teacher Layal tells me I am already strong, just like superman.” It was my turn to grin. Ahmed has shown me that in our classrooms, Lebanon’s resilience and hope is still very much alive and thriving.
Ahmed has shown me that in our classrooms, Lebanon’s resilience and hope is still very much alive and thriving.
Meet some Luminos students in Lebanon!
11-year-old Moamen’s behavior transformed through the program. His mother Fatima notes that he has become more caring towards his peers and takes the time to listen patiently. When asked what his favorite subject was he said, “I enjoy learning math—particularly the addition and the multiplication.” (Photo: Chris Trinh for the Luminos Fund)
Angie Thadani is a Senior Director of Programs at the Luminos Fund where she oversees the design and delivery of the Luminos program in different geographies, working in close collaboration with governments and our local community partners. Angie previously served as the Programs Manager at Dubai Cares, and as the Education in Emergency Programs Manager at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). There she led the implementation of the Agency’s emergency education response to the Syrian crisis and supported the integration of Palestine refugees from Syria into UNRWA’s education system in Lebanon.