UNICEF: ensuring the youngest refugees get their foot on the ladder of lifelong learning in Lebanon

Quality pre-primary education is the foundation of a child’s journey. In Lebanon today, through a UNICEF-supported non-formal education programme, thousands are experiencing their first days in class

UNICEF Lebanon
Oday with his teacher in school
16 July 2021

Every child deserves access to quality early childhood education. Quality pre-primary education is the foundation of a child’s journey: every stage of education that follows relies on its success. Yet, nearly half of all pre-primary-age children globally are not enrolled in pre-primary education despite the proven and lifelong benefits.

For the nearly half-million Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, education offers a bridge to a brighter future. And through a UNICEF-supported non-formal education programme funded by UKAid and the government of France, thousands are now experiencing their first days in class.

One child currently enrolled in UNICEF’s Early Childhood Education (ECE) programme is 5-year-old Oday. Born in Syria, Oday’s mother was killed in the conflict shortly after his second birthday. In search of safety and a new beginning, his father travelled to Lebanon with Oday and younger brother immediately.

Unable to find long-term employment since he arrived, Oday’s father supports his children through low-level cash assistance received from NGOs which he can top-up only occasionally through intermittent casual work. 

Oday has been attending ECE classes given through UNICEF partner Naba’a and hosted in the municipal offices of the northern town of Muhamara, every day for two weeks so far – having previously racked up two months of distance learning at home during Lebanon’s pandemic enforced lockdown period.

It’s a journey he happily makes every morning from his home on the outskirts of the town. The twenty-minute bus ride with his classmates – provided as part of the partner’s programme - is a highlight of his day.

Portrait of Oday

“I love to learn”

Confident and bright, he smiles as he clutches an exercise book, waving it high as he shouts, “I love to learn!”

For his teacher, Sara, Oday’s challenges are typical of many. “The refugees in our area have little opportunity to learn. Public schools are overcrowded and underfunded, and often parents are illiterate themselves and show little interest in the value of education”.

A key plank of the programme here is the support it offers for parents too. “We engage directly with parents. Through weekly sessions, we can guide them in topics including how to reduce their stress and how best to deal with children. A positive parent is an empowered parent”.

In return, the team relies on parents for their support. “For many, having their children studying from home wasn’t ideal, but by forging close relationships with families, we encouraged the parents to let the children try. Within our classes, we experienced no dropouts. This is quite some success,” Sara remarks.

Oday, and his class of fifteen eager peers, attend the centre five days a week and for five hours a day. Learning math and science in English – for all the children, this is their first experience of a second language – and other subjects in Arabic, when we visit, they are busy learning to trace the shape of letters and forming them out of playdough.

“These have been difficult times for Lebanon, particularly the past eighteen months. But we believe they will catch up through structured learning sessions and eventually be well-prepared when an opening to join formal education – and a school - arises,” the teacher adds.

Oday has progressed well. He’d never before had a day at school, never even held a pen. As positive as his progress has been, Sara urges caution, saying, “It will take time for his level of education to rise. Not only for Oday but all our children. They have been left for so long without access to learning”.

Oday in the classroom with his friends

The classes teach more than academic subjects – there are life skills to be learned too. Guidance on how to protect themselves and how to respect others is shared - all learned through play, through dance, through singing and stories. Without exception, this is the first time these children have learned such lessons.

“Every young child just needs encouragement to learn - they need someone to show them the value of their work and the rewards it will bring to them. Now, our children have developed an enthusiasm to learn. They hadn’t experienced this before. We see the beginning of a change”, insists Sara.

It is time for a world where all children enter school equipped with the skills they need to succeed.

Today in Lebanon, UNICEF, supported by local partners and funded by UKAid and the government of France, ensures that the youngest generation of vulnerable refugees can get their foot on the ladder of lifelong learning.