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In 2015, Janira Taibo, a 19-year-old Spanish woman who was studying Asian and African Studies, landed in Beirut (Lebanon) with an exchange program to continue her training at the prestigious French-speaking university in Saint-Joseph. He did not know that, in this city on the shores of the Mediterranean, he would meet the person who would change his life forever. Within two months of his arrival, in the surroundings of the National Museum in the capital, Janira met Salah, a 13-year-old Syrian boy who made a living selling roses on the street. “We became very good friends. I don’t know how it happened, because I just spluttered some Arabic and he barely spoke English, but we started seeing each other every afternoon. “
On the boy’s birthday, Janira decided to organize a surprise party to which he invited other children who worked with him and a Lebanese friend who served as their translator. “It was the first time I was truly able to communicate with Salah,” he says. At the celebration, he burst into tears and told the young Spanish woman his whole story: how he had come to Lebanon alone at the age of nine and had been forced to work on the street.
“He told me that he was fed up with his life, that he didn’t want to keep selling roses, that he wanted to have friends, be a normal kid and go to school, and he asked me to teach him English.” That same day, when she returned home, Janira called her twin sister Tamar, who was studying Photography Direction in Madrid at the time. “I told him everything and told him that I wanted to do something to change Salah’s life, and in that conversation the idea of creating a school for him came up,” he recalls.
The impromptu English lessons in Beirut coffee shops soon began to attract other youngsters who also worked in the area. The popularity of the classes grew so much that, finally, the twins made the decision to put aside their previous plans to dedicate their time to an educational project: the creation of a school for the children of Beirut.
Thus arises 26 Letters, a free learning program that provides classes to children in English, math, Arabic, ethics, and history. They have several teachers in a school whose door is always open to any minor residing in Beirut, regardless of their nationality, socioeconomic origin or educational level. In fact, the 100 students of 26 Letters are between three and 19 years old and, although some of them attend formal education centers, others work and do not go to school, so there are several class shifts that adjust to their different circumstances.
The initiative is financed mainly through private donations, the founders’ own resources and the contributions of their network of collaborators and volunteers; although in the last year the NGO has received several grants from the German peace organization ForumZFD.
Our priority when new students arrive is for them to access the Lebanese educational system because then that opens doors to higher studies.
At 26 Letters the classes are small and the curriculum is self-created and based on the level of English – the vehicular language of Lebanese schools – that a student needs to know to pass the Lebanese national exams. However, the relationship between teachers and students goes far beyond the educational framework. “We are a family, a community,” says Janira.
“Our priority when new students arrive is for them to access the Lebanese educational system because then that opens doors for them to higher studies,” says Tamar. “But for them to enter public school we need to give them extra support and then, once inside, the children also need reinforcement to keep up with the classes, especially if they have gaps in their knowledge.” In the case of students who due to their age can no longer access the official system, “non-formal education, training workshops or learning English are skills that we provide them and that will help them get better jobs,” he emphasizes.
In addition to free classes in different subjects, 26 Letters teachers make sure that all their pupils grow up in a healthy and stable environment: they accompany minors to the hospital, finance their medical treatments and provide them with psychological help through Restart, a Lebanese association that has been providing mental health and social services to survivors of the war in Lebanon since 1996.
A future for minors, far from labor exploitation
The school led by young women from Madrid has a department designed to guarantee a quality future for each of its students. To do this, young people trapped in oppressive working conditions are offered the possibility of working as Arabic teachers within the association.
Omar is one of them. 18-year-old Syrian, had to exchange education for employment when he arrived in Lebanon fleeing the war in the city of Deir ez-Zor, along with his parents and five brothers in 2012. When he first went to 26 Letters, this A young man with a cheerful look had not been in school for three years. There, he learned English and then began working as an Arabic instructor, trading his job in a paper mill for teaching Arabic. Since then, he has stated that he wishes to return to Syria and go to university to become an English teacher with formal accreditation.
Although Omar was too old to enter formal education, his younger sisters, Ahlam and Zeina, still had the opportunity. Ahlam, who was 11 years old at the time, learned to read and write. From the organization, the little girl was enrolled in the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP), an intensive training plan regulated by the Ministry of Education that seeks to integrate refugee minors out of school for more than two years into the Lebanese education system. Thus, she successfully completed it at age 12 and was accepted into the public school, which she continues to attend with enthusiasm three years later.
Efforts by the authorities made great strides and resulted in reduce the number of Syrian children out of school. But the problems have not ended with the entry into the classrooms of students. Classes on the brink of capacity, high transport costs, fewer hours, the language barrier – in Lebanon the main subjects are taught in English or French, while in Syria all teaching is in Arabic – and the damage of the School infrastructure, caused by the explosion of August 4, pose serious difficulties for the right to education of refugee children.
A year full of challenges
In October 2019, anti-government demonstrations broke out in the country. Restrictive policies and widespread discrimination against the 1.5 million Syrian refugee population were added to the social protests. Thus, displaced persons who do not have a residence permit in Lebanon – around 78% of the population – were threatened by the increase in mass arrests and deportation orders.
All of this greatly compromised the work of 26 Letters, whose 301 beneficiaries – including students and families – are mostly of Syrian origin. With the intensification of discriminatory policies “many children stopped coming to our center for fear of being detained and deported,” recalls Janira.
A few months later, covid-19 arrived. The pandemic not only meant the interruption of the new home learning plan, it also caused most of the volunteers to return to their countries of origin. To ensure the survival of the families, the sisters launched the bell Survive to Learn in order to raise funds and be able to bring food, medicine and hygiene products to its beneficiaries.
In a context of crisis, informal education initiatives such as 26 Letters become more important, since they can help to bridge the educational gap. These provide children with a greater range of possibilities that allow them to advance and build a future far from social exclusion.