WEST BEIRUT, Lebanon – Nour Barkouk, a 15-year-old Palestinian refugee living in a poverty-stricken home in the Tarek al Jadidah neighborhood in West Beirut, sees education as a key to creating a better future for herself and her family.
Nour’s father died in 2009, and her mother is sick. As the youngest child in a family of four daughters, she is hopeful that she will have the opportunity to study medicine and provide medical services in Palestinian refugee camps.
“I want to be a doctor – that’s my dream,” said Nour, a grade-nine student participating in remedial classes supported by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). “I’m not afraid of failing, but I need high marks so that I can get into the university and be a doctor.”
Nour is one of 90 students selected to participate in after-school remedial classes provided by Popular Aid for Relief and Development (PARD), a long-standing MCC partner in Lebanon.
These students attend crowded schools in poor neighborhoods in West Beirut and in the Shatila refugee camp – a camp established in 1948 for Palestinians during the conflict that led to the founding of Israel, explained Ahmad Halimeh, a teacher and co-founder of PARD.
After six decades, Palestinian families continue to live as refugees in the impoverished refugee camp, in Palestinian communities called “gatherings” or in poor neighborhoods. Students attend schools operated by UNRWA (the United Nations Relief and Works Agency).
However, Halimeh explained, “Without access to after-school support, students drop out of school. If they complete high school, their marks are too low to meet entrance requirements of universities. Many people cannot afford private tutors because they are poor.”
PARD has been offering remedial classes since 2000, said Halimeh, but PARD has limited financial resources and can only accept a very small percentage of students who want to participate in classes.
In March 2010, the remedial classes became part of MCC’s Global Family education sponsorship program. PARD has now expanded its program, formerly for grades seven to nine, to include remedial education for Palestinian and Lebanese children, ages 6 to 13, in West Beirut and south Lebanon.
In West Beirut, PARD provides remedial classes in the Gaza Displacement Centre, a complex of four bomb-damaged buildings that have been developed into small housing units. Most students attending classes live in crowded conditions in these buildings.
Recent studies on educational levels of Palestinians living in Lebanon show that every third person, age 10 or older, in the camps and “gatherings” is no longer in school or has not completed any education. One in 10 has completed the secondary or higher levels, and only one in 20 has completed semi-professional or higher education.
This high drop-out rate, Halimeh explained, is closely related to internal conflicts in the camps, political instability in Lebanon, crowded conditions in schools, low educational levels among parents, early marriage and financial pressure that forces children to seek jobs at an early age.
Education, he said, not only opens doors to higher-paying jobs and better working conditions, it also lessens the possibility of young people joining militia groups or abusing drugs.
“If they get better marks, they can enter secondary schools and vocational training and make better decisions about the future,” said Halimeh.
Nour is the first child in her family to have the opportunity to participate in remedial classes.
“I love to study – my first love in life is studying and going to the university,” she said.