23 January 2014 | by Amy Merone
When Iman Al Ajami greets me at Movement Social’s headquarters in Badaro, Beirut, I’m immediately drawn to her warm eyes and wide smile.
Credit: Christian Aid / Natalie Naccache. With the arrival of Syrian refugee children, Christian Aid partner Movement Social has integrated the children into their education centres across Lebanon.
There is something deeply comforting about her presence. She doesn’t need to say anything for me to know that she is an important figure in the lives of the Lebanese and Syrian children who attend Movement Social’s alternative education centre in Burj Hammoud, Beirut, and regard it as something of a haven.
When we arrive at the centre in the Armenian district of Beirut, it is alive with the sound of children’s voices. Iman is lovingly swamped by children and their parents as she guides me upstairs to a classroom where Lebanese and Syrian children sit together painting.
I’m struck by the way in which the children are lost in their own worlds; quietly applying gentle brush strokes to the paper in front of them.
‘Many of the children who come to the centre are in shock’, Iman tells me. ‘It is obvious that they are suffering and that their parents are suffering. This reflects on the children. Here at the centre they can express themselves. We offer a safe environment for both Lebanese and Syrian children.’
Since the conflict in Syria began almost three years ago, more than 2 million people have become refugees in neighbouring countries. Of those, more than half are children and young people. Many have witnessed horrific scenes of violence in Syria and are struggling with the psychological impact of the conflict.
Thirteen year old Elaf and her aunt, Rajaa, are refugees from Syria. On the morning that I meet them, Elaf has been taking part in a therapeutic art class.
As I sit with Elaf, her aunt tells me about the aerial bombings and clashes in their neighbourhood in Aleppo, which eventually forced the family to leave their home and seek sanctuary in Lebanon. ‘Elaf and her siblings could not put up with the situation any longer. They were screaming in their sleep. They were having a nervous breakdown.’
As Rajaa tells me the story of her family’s suffering, Elaf starts to cry. Iman hands her a tissue, which she starts to pick apart into tiny pieces. I’m distracted as I watch them fall to the floor around her feet.
It’s hard to imagine what Elaf may have already experienced in her short life, but I’m heartened by the smile that creeps across her face when I ask her what she enjoys most about the centre. ‘I love drawing and painting. I love to draw nature…the flowers and the trees.’
It is clear that the centre has made a significant difference to Elaf’s life and to the lives of other refugee children.
‘The role of Movement Social has been very important for us. When Elaf started at the centre she was very shy. She was always afraid and couldn’t express herself. Now she has improved. She interacts [with others] and she can read and write’, Rajaa tells me.
The centre provides an alternative form of education for both Lebanese and Syrian children who are unable to access the mainstream public schools system in Lebanon.
With Christian Aid funding, Movement Social has provided small group and one-to-one psychosocial support for 120 Syrian refugee children who have been psychologically affected by their experiences of the war in Syria.
Specialists at the centre use art, theatre and dance therapy to help the children express what they have seen and experienced. Furthermore, they work with the children’s families – recognising that what is going on in a child’s home impacts upon their well-being.
‘The children who come to us are suffering’, Iman tells me. ‘The only place for the children to really feel what they want to feel, express what they want to express and be who they want to be, is here at the centre.’
I myself am a little sad when it comes to saying goodbye to Iman, and the children and their families who I have met. Iman hugs me and smiles her wide smile that drew me in only hours earlier.
As she waves us off, I can see why the centre that she runs is such a haven to so many children and their families. I feel relieved, comforted even, to know that a place like this exists for children like Elaf who at thirteen have already seen and suffered so much.
To date, Christian Aid has reached almost 40,000 people within Syria and the neighbouring countries of Lebanon and Iraq with a combination of shelter, food and essential items, as well as education and psychosocial support.
You can donate to the Christian Aid Syria crisis appeal by visiting christianaid.org.uk/emergencies or by phoning 08080 004 004.
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