By Nicole Ireland
BEDDAWI CAMP, Lebanon, 20 June 2007 - Leaving their homes between bouts of gunfire, an estimated 21,000 Palestinian refugees have fled the fighting at Nahr El Bared camp in northern Lebanon in recent weeks. As a result, thousands of children and adolescents here have lost any semblance of their normal daily routine.
Most of the refugee families have moved to the nearby Beddawi camp, where residents living in already crowded conditions have been adjusting to the large population influx. Children in the Beddawi camp were particularly affected when their classes stopped so that the camp's schools could be transformed into emergency housing for many of the displaced.
On top of the fear and disruption, many youths aged 14 to 18 faced an additional worry - the fast-approaching mandatory national exams that determine their future secondary and post-secondary education prospects. Without classes, they couldn't complete their studies, let alone sit the exams.
"We were very sad when we left the [Nahr El Bared] camp because we thought we wouldn't get our diplomas," says Ahmad, a high school senior scheduled to write his Baccalaureate exam at the end of this month.
The importance of schooling
UNICEF and the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNWRA) worked quickly to find a solution to the exam crisis. Within two weeks after the conflict broke out, eight buses began transporting more than 1,000 students from the Beddawi camp to UNRWA schools in the nearby city of Tripoli to resume classes and prepare for their tests. The buses take boys and girls in three shifts a day, five days a week.
For Ahmad and his peers, the buses brought renewed hope for the future. "We got the chance to realize our dreams and finish school and get our diplomas, which is the result of 13 years of work," he notes.
Younger students are also well aware of the importance of schooling. Fitnat, a ninth-grader, is preparing for an exam to qualify for secondary school. "Getting to school helps secure our future - it is the only way for us," she says.
A source of happiness
Although it is not yet possible to send other children (that is, students who are not currently preparing for exams) back to school, UNICEF is working with its partners to restore normalcy to their lives through recreation programmes.
In the Beddawi camp, UNICEF is helping to reach an estimated 1,500 children by supporting animators who organize activities with children; delivering kits that contain sports equipment, games and drawing materials; and providing a special playground area.
For 11-year-old twins Rayan and Masa, the opportunity to play and draw is a source of happiness in a difficult situation. The sisters now live in a classroom with about 25 people. Sitting on a mat with their friend Majda, they say they are eager to return to school.
All three girls smile as they talk about their goals in life. What do they want to be? Their answers reflect ambition and hope: "Doctor." "Teacher." "Engineer - so I can help rebuild."