By Kulsoom Rizvi - Children's Rights Correspondent for Safe World. January 2013.
Shatila is a refugee camp in Beirut which has been receiving hundreds upon hundreds of Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria. Kulsoom Rizvi writes of her recent visit there:
At the entrance of the the Shatila refugee camp in southern Beirut, an array of colorful pro-Palestinian banners and fading posters hover over an intertwining web of electricity wires, dangling loosely above the heads of men, women and children. The streets are scanty. It's astonishing how a car and several motorbikes can buzz through. A mountain of rubbish hides in the small corners of the camp with trash also scattered throughout the muddy streets. Barefoot children fiddle with the rubbish, hunched over as they amuse themselves with crunching old soda cans.
It's a place many have described as "hell."
But just near the eastern entrance of the camp lies a white building where children can be heard happily screaming, singing and laughing.
The Children and Youth Center in Shatila is one of the few places for the youth to play, grow and learn in a safe environment - a sort of a lifeline for the camp's disadvantaged youth.
"The kids call the CYC their second home," Abu Moujahed said, director of the CYC and a fatherly figure who the kids adore and admire. "But, we're running out of room here. We don't have enough places to put these new families coming from Syria. It's the kids who suffer."
With the flood of Palestinian refugees fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria, the people of Shatila are struggling to accommodate dozens of families everyday who are looking for a place to stay.
5-year-old Noura arrived from the Yarmouk camp for Palestinians in Syria just last month after it was attacked with jet bombs. Her mother spoke about how she made a life for her children in the camp and she wishes nothing more but to go home.
"We didn't have a lot of money in Syria but we were comfortable, we tried to make a beautiful home. My kids have no place to be kids here. The rooms we live in are so small. They can't move around," she said.
Maysaa Akkileh from Association Najdeh, an NGO in Shatila focused on empowering women and children said how there is not enough room for children to play in their houses nor safe enough to play in the streets. Space was created by the NGO for the children to play on the roof:
"They're not happy...how they see their friends live, how they live but they're happy when they have a space to play. They need this."
But a safe space to play freely for children isn't the only issue. Nicole Eid Abu-Haydar from Unite Lebanon Youth Project stressed the need for children to have a safe environment to express themselves emotionally.
"The children are stressed and cramped in their homes. They need emotional safety, not just physical safety," Abu-Haydar, senior consultant of ULYP, said.
ULYP is an NGO which focuses its programs and activities on children and youth from marginalized communities in Lebanon. Program and activities promote awareness and tolerance amongst the children and youth who come from different backgrounds:
"We don't want to sit them down and tell them how respect each other, understand each other, tolerate each other. We want them to learn through talking with each other, expressing their emotions, participating in activities. We have a holistic approach."
"Getting kids "out" through education
In the upstairs library of the CYC, a few little girls gather books and sprawl them across the table, rapidly reading stories in Arabic and also pausing to figure out the English translation for certain words. A volunteer of the CYC hovers over and says,
"We want them to read and read and learn. These kids are fast. We want them to get out and get a job. Only with education is this possible."
But Akklieh said that there is concern over the quality of education received by most Palestinian children.
The United Nations Work and Relief Agency (UNWRA) is responsible for providing free primary education for Palestinian refugee children, but offers limited secondary education. Akkileh said, the UNWRA schools are not enough and have gotten worse since the beginning of its creation in 1948.
According to a 2011 study conducted by the American University of Beirut, there is a rising percentage of early school dropouts, intensified by budget cuts, poor environmental conditions, increase of enrollment and limited student-teacher interaction.
Organizations like ULYP provide scholarships for Palestinian students to pursue higher education and Association Nadja conducts specific programs to help aid the youth in their career goals.
"They don't live like humans here,” Akklieh said. “We provide them with something to get out of these camps - education. But, every year it gets difficult funding for these programs," she said. "We concentrate on women and children because they are our weakest circle in society and in Shatila. We want to motivate them to get out."
Kulsoom Rizvi is a Pakistani/American journalist based in the UK. She specialises in humanitarian issues and has a passion for children’s rights and child refugees.