Willy Bach reflects on a recent visit to Beirut, almost 50 years since he was last there
Imagine if you can, if all of the schools in Birmingham and Manchester were closed and their pupils forced to enrol in London. Imagine the upheaval, the confusion, and the impact it would have. Not just on the children from Birmingham and Manchester, but those in London whose classrooms were a lot more crowded, whose teachers were much more over-worked. While this scenario is unlikely, something very similar has occurred in Lebanon. So many refugees have fled the neighbouring war in Syria, they now make up roughly a quarter of the country’s population.
I visited Beirut recently and learnt of a project that tries to help manage this enormous change, and ensure the Syrian refugee children do not suffer any further disruption. Accessing Education: Language Integration for Syrian Refugee Children is a British Council project co-funded by the European Union. By working with Lebanese partners and the Institut Francais du Liban, the project is striving to assist the country’s school system in dealing with such a large influx of new pupils and mitigating some of the effects of refugee displacement.
Better access to education is being provided, and students are gaining transferable skills as a consequence of teacher training for 1500 Lebanese state school teachers. And that training is also helping teachers handle issues of inclusion, tolerance, and anti-discrimination in the classroom. Thanks to such support, the project has now reached 90,000 refugee children since the start of this year.
I was in Beirut in my role as Chair of the British Council's All Party Parliamentary Group. Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Nigeria, and see first-hand the justice sector projects being carried out in partnership with DfID. As a legal-aid advocate, I was fascinated to learn more of Africa's largest country, its legal system and how the British Council was helping to improve access to justice for all. The visit to Beirut however, also focussed on areas less familiar – but no less interesting – to me: civil society, the arts and of course, education.
Although a short visit, I'd like to think I was able to begin to grasp Lebanon today and its challenges and opportunities. I also met with Lebanese and Syrian artists, and learnt of their efforts to provide an artistic component to humanitarian aid. Having travelled down the coast to Saidon, I met with young people involved in the British Council's ‘Active Citizens’ programme and was heartened to see how they were working with like-minded young people in the UK on projects focused on equality, justice, human rights and environmental protection. Their greatest challenge was the lack of space in which they felt able to express themselves. Work however, with local government had made some steps to correct that, leading to an impressive collaboration around waste management.
I was last in Beirut in 1966, and remember a glorious, beautiful city. A difficult history between then and now has not, in my eyes, dimmed that beauty. But it is now accompanied by something else: resilience. Despite all of the challenges thrown at Lebanon, the country continues to move forward, helped in large part by its greatest asset – its young people, and the work of the British Council. Long may that continue.
Lord Willy Bach is Shadow FCO Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @FightBach
Published 18th November 2014