BY KEZIA M’CLELLAND
This Spring, Eastern Ghouta, 10km from the centre of Damascus, saw seven weeks of intense bombardment and destruction, in which at least 301 children lost their lives.
It’s easy to feel helpless as we watch situations like this unfold and, as the fighting continues outside the headlines, it can be hard to know how to stay engaged and remain compassionate in the face of the many conflicts and disasters around the world.
It’s in situations like this that I realise how grateful I am for Viva’s model of working in relationship alongside local churches and organisations who are there on the ground.
These local faith communities are deeply embedded in their location, and are able to meaningfully engage with children and families around them, being hope and light in situations that can seem so filled with darkness.
It is well-recognised that in situations of conflict and disaster, children need ongoing psychosocial support and care to help them to process and cope with what they have seen and experienced.
Churches and local faith communities are well-placed for this role since they are already there and have no plans to leave the community.
In Viva’s partnership with MERATH in Lebanon, we have seen the value of a relational approach over the course of our work together.
Nine church-based education projects now support learning for 1,500 Syrian refugee children who would otherwise not have access to education. It’s a vision of real hope amidst the destruction witnessed in places like Eastern Ghouta.
Many of these students have missed up to five years of school due to conflict, school closures, displacement and relocation, and lack of space in the formal school system in Lebanon.
These learning centres seek to fill the gap providing non-formal education programs including basic literacy and numeracy, Arabic, English, Maths and Science.
The learning centres are a safe, protective environment, and are run by churches who are integral members of the local community, and who intentionally build relationships with parents and provide holistic support to the whole family through multiple services.
These projects have achieved high average attendance rates of 89.3% and an 89.1% average completion rate, remarkable under the difficult and insecure circumstances many children live in.
As one mother from north Lebanon said, “The educators are kind and the quality of teaching is very good. I feel there is a strong bond and relation between the children and the educators. They understand, respect and interact very well with one another. Truly, better than the teachers anywhere else.”
This high success rate is due to much more than just quality teaching, but the result of the safe, caring and protective environment of the learning centres, made possible through the child protection training and mentoring we’ve been able to offer.
Parents too are treated with dignity and respect, and feel welcomed into a larger local community that cares for their needs and about them as individuals. This focus on relationship echoes the heart of all of Viva’s work as we seek to build meaningful and lasting partnerships in and through our networks around the world.
Relationships have also been built and strengthened between the staff and volunteers responsible for these education projects, and the ‘Education Learning Network’ (ELN) brings these individuals together to learn and share good practice and experiences.
The ELN meetings are hosted by a different centre in a different part of Lebanon each time, and have drawn together up to 15 church-based learning centres with up to 90 participants.
Providing opportunities for networking, collaborative working and sharing ideas is hugely valuable in a context where people are often operating alone and in isolation. It’s been encouraging to see the learning centres increasingly taking ownership of the ELN, enjoying hosting others at their centres, and developing new friendships with one another.
We don’t support only refugee children in Lebanon but displaced children in Syria too. Back in Damascus, it’s been wonderful to hear updates from our Child Friendly Space (CFS) which has been hosted there over the last three years.
The team and the project were affected by the crisis in Ghouta, and could have chosen to shut down the programme. Their decision to keep the project open is testament to their commitment to the children and to the genuine strength of their relationships built with the children’s parents.
Read what the co-ordinator of the Damascus CFS told me:
“Our centre in the church was unreachable. Schools next to the church paused in March and April 2018, but we took the decision to continue with our children and help them, especially to help them get through this difficult time. So, we searched for a new place which might be safer, more secure and a little further from Al-Ghouta.
“It was not an easy decision to continue with the kids under the shells and bombs. The children and their parents were frightened… Also, we were not sure if we moved to a new place, whether the parents would send their kids to a place which is further than the old one. But, the surprise was they accepted our movement easily and said one thing: ‘We trust you’.
“These three short words helped us to forget what was going on around us and stimulated us to put our maximum effort to help the children in spite of the damage near them.
“But now we thank God, because the things are becoming a little better and the new space gave us the opportunity to reach new children from the community.”
Viva partners with MERATH to support this work and we’re looking forward to hosting a three-day training and retreat for the Syria CFS teams in Lebanon in September.
Please join me in praying for these dedicated children’s leaders, for parents and for the children – that relationships would continue to be built and nurtured, and that more people living in vulnerable situations in conflict will be able to say, “We trust you.”
Kezia M’Clelland is Viva’s Children in Emergencies Specialist
Photos (unless stated): MERATH