The truth is that we are accustomed to dealing with unexpected situations. I am the head educator in one of Lebanon’s most populous Palestinian refugee camps. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the camp was established. There are now three generations of families who have called this camp their only real home. More Palestinians arrived after being displaced by the conflict in Syria.
Approximately 45 percent of Palestine refugees in Lebanon are currently housed in makeshift camps consisting of shacks with no more than two concrete rooms each. Some parts of the camp have alleys between the shelters so narrow that the sun cannot shine in and the coffins of the dead cannot pass. Due to violent conflicts in the past, all entrances are now guarded by the military. Whether we were born in the camp or had to flee a war, we are all used to living in a constant state of alert, worried about the well-being of ourselves and our loved ones.
COVID-19 posed a new kind of danger; one posed by an invisible foe. Despite this, we felt prepared because we are always vigilant. We’ve had to close the school several times because of fighting and other emergencies, so we made sure that the kids could still get their schoolwork done from the comfort of their own homes. When the school was shut down in February 2020 to prevent the spread of the pandemic, this was the system we relied on.
We were able to keep in touch with parents from the first day of the school closure onwards thanks to the WhatsApp groups we set up to disseminate our regular safety updates. This streamlined version of the curriculum was created by UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) to focus on the essentials, such as Arabic, English, Science, and Mathematics. The entire faculty and staff were given lessons in using virtual collaboration platforms like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. We were all set to begin our first online classes 15 days after the school had to close. It took months, I heard, for schools in some European countries to get ready for online learning. Because of the constant threat of violence, we have become experts at being ready for any situation. We can make rapid progress.
Because of the Madad Fund and the Education in Emergencies (EIE) for Palestine Refugee Children project funded by the governments of Belgium and the European Union, we also had counsellors available to provide psychosocial support to the most at-risk children and their families. Their intervention was crucial because we didn’t know how long the school would be closed. Parents and students alike needed preparation for the inevitable problems that would arise during a lockdown, beyond the mental health implications. Many households, for instance, have to use a single smartphone to serve six people or more due to a severe lack of devices. It was a priority for our counsellors to ensure that children did not miss out on educational opportunities, and they assisted parents in making lesson plans. As a result, our educators were free to concentrate on their core mission.
It has not been simple, despite the fact that we have systems in place and have moved quickly. Most people in the camp are actually living at or below the poverty line. UNRWA helps many families get by financially so they can provide for their children. Palestine refugees in Lebanon are denied the right to work in over 50 different occupations by the government there. Many educators, including myself, have been displaced from our homes and are now providing services to fellow refugees.
Electricity is spotty, and there aren’t very many gadgets to begin with. Wi-Fi connections are spotty, and many homes are dark for several hours each day. UNRWA created printed self-learning materials for students without access to laptops or smartphones, which were distributed on a weekly basis and collected by instructors for grading and feedback. And we had to be adaptable. In order to ensure that students did not fall behind academically, teachers were often rotated between classrooms and even schools. We developed a test that took students’ online activity and submitted work into account when grading them.
However, it was impossible to speak with every kid. About a third of the class, by our estimation, did not make any effort to learn. The constant fear of financial insecurity and impending budget cuts is a contributing factor. Global Education Monitoring Report by UNESCO estimates 2016 spending on refugee education at only US$800 million. To ensure that refugee students are able to enrol in and complete high-quality educational programmes that will prepare them for their futures, funding for these programmes must be increased by a factor of ten.
These are not wasted funds. Through education, refugees can escape poverty and contribute to the economies of the countries that have taken them in. As a matter of fact, I am a UNRWA alumna who found employment with the organisation and is now giving back to the community by going the extra mile to ensure that her students receive a well-rounded education.
As the number of students taking part in classes rose, we knew that the money coming from donors who prioritised emergency education was having an effect. This was a huge relief, as it allowed us to buy more tablets for the kids and contribute to the cost of Internet access. Tablets have increased student engagement by 10-15% at my institution. In 2018, the United States government ended all funding, leading to a financial crisis unlike any experienced before by Palestine refugees. Staff at UNRWA felt a sense of relief and gratitude when funding was reinstated this year, as we are now able to provide services to Palestine refugees without worrying about whether or not we will be paid at the end of the month. It’s like a huge burden has been removed from us.
This month, all 438 of my school’s students were able to return to class. Having them back after more than a year of distance learning has been amazing. Twenty low-income kids who missed out on remote education are hesitant to return to class. They worry that they will never be able to catch up to the rest of their class. To encourage them to go back to class, we’ve designed a special catch-up programme to help them get up to speed before they return.
There is a risk that an entire generation will be lost because of the havoc that COVID-19 has wreaked on the educational system. The time it will take to help the students who have fallen behind catch up is, in my opinion, around two years. Children who have fled violence and persecution are examples of resilience. We can prevent any further damage to their education with the right amount of resources and investment.