There is always a first time for everything. So the saying goes.
A first day at school, for any child, is always an anxious, exciting time that marks a fresh start in life. At 12, Salah* is bubbling with this excitement again. The Syrian boy returns to school for the first time, not since the summer holidays, but for the first time in five years. He is in a new classroom; meeting new teachers; sitting on a new desk and flipping through new books.
‘’I feel very happy to be back after all this time,’’ he smiles. ‘’I told my parents that I wanted to go to school again. My mother learnt that Save the Children opened [non-formal education] classrooms for children of all ages. I joined with my siblings.’’
When Salah and his father left their house in Aleppo to inspect damage that one of the bombings inflicted on the neighbourhood back in 2012, Salah was horrified by what he discovered. He was only eight and about to embark on a new schoolyear in the third grade. "My father and I went out to see what happened,’’ recalls Salah, ruffling his tidy hair, ‘’we found my school flattened. It was bombed, turned into rubble. Not a single wall stood. That moment I knew I could no more go to school.’’
Salah’s family fled to Lebanon later that year. His brother and two sisters’ hopes of returning to school vanished along with his. Amid harsh circumstances in refuge, the primary concern was to find a place to stay and a meal to eat. Education was not even a remote possibility. Salah had to work to help their father secure a living for the family. He found a job at a local bakery, where he has been working for three years. His undaunted attitude suggests that work has made him sound much older than his 12 years.
‘’I work from 06:00pm until midnight,’’ says Salah with an unmistakable Lebanese accent he acquired here. ‘’I sell bread, pastries, cakes.’’
It has been less than a month since he enrolled in Save the Children’s non-formal school in South Lebanon- supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (NMFA) - and Salah already relishes being inside a classroom again. He enjoys being with children like him. ‘’I want to learn,’’ says Salah, the glint of an eager 12-years-old is back in his eyes. ‘’I forgot what school looked like. I forgot how to read and write. Now, I learn many things; English, Arabic and maths. English is my favourite subject and I am improving. We learn seasons, days and months- January, February.’’
Through a tailored curriculum that falls within the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education’s guidelines to support the formal education system, Save the Children aims to prepare children of all ages for school years and equip them with the knowledge necessary to allow them to join their peers in public schools after years lost in conflict.
Salah doesn’t think too much about his dreams. He knows he wants to return to Syria. He believes he should continue to learn at a public school if there is a chance of eliminating language barriers there. Children like him should be able to go to school. There is no other option he can think of.
‘’Children like me should not give up on education,’’ he stresses. ‘’They should be determined to going back to school.’’
It is a valuable piece of advice meant for himself as well as every other child. As Salah has proved, it is never too late to go back to school.
*Name has been changed for protection purposes.