Around 1.5 million refugees remain displaced in Lebanon – accounting for nearly a quarter of Lebanon’s total population, the highest proportion of refugees anywhere in the world.These comprise Syrian (more than one million), Palestinian (estimated around 400,000), Iraqi (approximately 50,000) and smaller numbers of migrants from other countries.
Lebanon has not ratified the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its accompanying 1967 protocol.1 The convention defined the refugee classification and identified the legal obligations of host countries toward refugees, including the guarantee of their rights to freedom of movement, protection, justice, and work. The protocol removed the geographic and temporal conditions limiting the convention’s applicability to individuals displaced during World War II and until 1951. A pillar of both documents is the principle of non-refoulement—the idea that refugees cannot be forcibly returned to an area where their freedoms are threatened and lives are endangered.
In contrast to the 1951 convention and its protocol, the government of Lebanon views fleeing populations as guests, not as refugees. Consequently, it is not obligated to recognize the rights guaranteed by the convention, unless the rights are captured by other international treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In turn, the refugees’ well-being is dependent solely on the largesse of the host country and international agencies. This guest approach partly aims to prevent the integration of refugees and ensure their eventual return to their countries of origin.
Refugees in Lebanon suffer from widespread poverty, discrimination and an extreme lack of rights; they cannot obtain citizenship and they are prohibited from more than 70 occupations. Refugees cannot access state health and education services so they are totally reliant on humanitarian organisations. In addition, Palestinian refugees are stateless – they have no home country to return to.
Burj Barajneh Camp (also known as Borj el Brajne) was established in 1949 by the League of Red Cross Societies and is located in the southern suburbs of Beirut. The camp was built on one square kilometre of land to accommodate 10,000 refugees initially. However following displacements from other camps, as well as the influx of Syrian refugees, the population is estimated to have swelled to more than 40,000 individuals; approximately 50% Syrian, 40% Palestinian, 5% Lebanese and 5% migrants of other nationalities. Many of the refugees live their whole life in the camp. Living conditions in the camp are extremely dire as infrastructure is generally quite poor, access to basics such as clean water is challenging, the poverty rate is very high, and unemployment is as high as 90%. The camp is not structurally sound, as houses are improperly built and residents have been forbidden by law from bringing building materials into the camp, preventing the repair, expansion, or improvement of homes. Moreover, loose electrical wires hanging low over the alleyways result in the death by electrocution of several individuals each year.
THE EDUCATION REVOLUTION
Stage One – Born to score.
Future English was born where Ahmad and Chris escape life. On the football pitch next to the MSF office where we both worked in Burj Barajneh; a refugee camp in South Beirut. We freestyled English to the kids. Count from one to ten to take a penalty. Name five colours to earn ten minutes playing as the striker. First student to say three words beginning with C becomes the captain, and so on. Bazinga! We’d found our methodology: gamify learning and suddenly it’s fun.
Stage Two – A civilised hijack.
We turned a car park behind the football pitch into our classroom. Lessons began with the buzz of our kids racing to deliver more chairs than the rest; from the camp to the class. It was a shanty school but there was a purity about it. We had a problem: most of the children spoke little or no English. How could we connect the biggest language in the world to one of its oldest: Arabic? We decided the newest and fastest growing language on the planet could build that bridge: Emoji.
Written on smart phones and Whatsapp everywhere, Emoji’s human mirror alphabet system has connected us all from Patagonia to Palestine. Working with emojis taught our children words, things and feelings that everyone across the world understands.
Stage 3 – The hunt for a permanent heart.
We needed a base; one room, at least. A place to teach and keep our classroom, materials and children safe.
Wherever that centre would be, it would be in Burj Barajneh. A shanty town built in 1947 by refugees and genocide survivors. When every resident in a community is stateless, it follows that there will be a certain volatility about the place. We might be in the Lebanese capital, but this bubble in South Beirut isn’t governed, policed, assisted or monitored by Lebanon’s state or government apparatus. We needed a safe space for our children to escape to whenever violence flared in the camp.
We had a few perfect meetings, handshakes and verbal agreements on contracts. Then a phone call or text message followed a few days later informing us that the agreed price had just increased, or the room would be shared with someone else. Doing business in refugee camps is hard. Finally, using Ahmad’s connections, we found an old house that we were able to convert into a school. We now have four classrooms, boys and girls toilets and a small kitchen in our education centre.
Stage 4 – Welcome to Future English.
We equipped one classroom with chairs and tables. A whiteboard for the teacher and a chalkboard for the students. We hired Dan, an English teacher and keen footballer from London, and Ibrahim and Hamza, two local teaching assistants from the camp who speak both English and Arabic. We began teaching four lessons a week to the children from Burj Barajneh.
Stage 5 – Stay at home learning.
A second lockdown hit Lebanon and curtailed our lessons. We developed a framework where our teachers would prepare homework sheets for the children, sanitise them, then deliver the work to Hamzah who would then take the sheets to our students’ homes. Later in the week, a second worksheet would be created; Hamzah would collect the first round of homework as he delivered the next installment; the sheets were returned to the teachers for marking. We continued operating like this until the lockdown was lifted and face-to-face teaching could continue. Concurrently, Chris was tutoring our students who had access to smart phones via Instagram. This proved to be an excellent way of keeping in contact with the more able students and ensuring they continued to progress at an exciting pace.
Stage 6 – Equity in the classroom
Finally, we are back in our classroom and continuing lessons and learning at pace. To increase female participation we are introducing a dedicated girls’ class. To supplement English lessons we offer art classes; these provide students with the opportunity to learn different techniques and to experiment with a variety of mediums. In addition, art provides an escape from the realities of everyday life.
Lebanon is a small country that hosts 1.5 million refugees. It is rife with pre-existing economic, social, and political challenges that make life especially difficult for refugees, including a crumbling economy and a high unemployment rate. One of the many places where refugees have resettled is Shatila refugee camp, in southern Beirut. Shatila was established in 1948 as a refugee camp for the newly arrived Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, after the 1947-1949 Arab-Israeli war. What was supposed to be a temporary home for displaced Palestinians became a war zone during the Lebanese civil war, and after 2011, saw the arrival of thousands of Syrian refugees displaced by the war in Syria. While Shatila officially started off as a refugee camp, it has since become more of a neighborhood in Beirut. Palestinians, Syrian refugees, other low income populations, and Lebanese citizens live within it. Sporadic violence and gang activities are common as the Lebanese authorities do not exercise their jurisdiction within the neighborhood. This less than one square-kilometre plot of land is home to an estimated 40,000 residents.
We opened a second football academy in Shatila camp in 2021
Poverty is a complicated issue, deciding to help those it affects is not