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Syrian lives

The boy who risked death to go to school

When war engulfed Syria, Mahmoud dodged bullets and bombs every day just to continue his education. Now the 13-year-old refugee has become one of the top students in his new school in Lebanon.

If Mahmoud Ahmad Al Fadel could give one piece of advice to the world, it would be: “Education is light; if you don’t seek it, you will be left in the dark.” His favorite proverb has relevance for many Syrian children, like himself, displaced by war.

For years, Mahmoud, a serious-minded 13-year-old student from the start, made the daily trip to his school in Homs, Syria without hesitation, despite bullets and bombs dropping around him.

“I was scared to be killed, but it’s school…I had to go,” he says. “I had no desire to stay in the dark, even if there’s war around me.”

13-year-old Mahmoud in Akkar Lebanon

13-year-old Mahmoud is one of a half-million school-aged Syrian children living in Lebanon.

Photo: Kulsoom Rizvi/IRC

It broke Mahmoud’s heart when one of those bombs destroyed his school four years ago. For him, the classroom was a refuge and a challenge.

“It’s the first step in becoming something great,” he says.

Mahmoud was fortunate in that both his parents are teachers. They taught him for several months until yet another bomb hit their home. After fleeing from one city to the next, they finally left Syria for Lebanon.

“My parents said in Lebanon I could go to school,” he recalls. “I just want to be safe and learn.”

Mahmoud is one of a half-million school-aged Syrian children living in Lebanon. The pressure to educate these youngsters has been immense, but 250,000 of them still have no opportunity to study. Cities and towns lack resources and physical space, even with the government mandating “second shifts” at public schools so Syrian children may attend classes.

I was scared to be killed, but it’s school…I had to go.

Mahmoud preferred to enroll in first shift courses, so that he could make friends with Lebanese children and learn how to speak the local dialect.

“I make friends easily,” he says, noting that he is good at math, Arabic and history and enjoys helping classmates with their homework. He is struggling to learn French, however.

“It’s a hard language,” he admits, made more so because he often can’t comprehend the teacher’s Lebanese accent.

Again, he had some luck when he was recommended to enroll in supportive classes run by the International Rescue Committee for Syrian children struggling to adjust in public school.

The IRC program builds core competencies in math, Arabic and a second language (English as well as French), with structured tutoring and child-centered learning activities. To date, the IRC has reached more than 4,300 Syrian refugee children across the Bekka and Akkar. 

13-year-old Mahmoud attends an IRC supportive class in Lebanon

Mahmoud attends an IRC supportive class where Syrian children struggling in the Lebanese public school system receive help in math, Arabic, and French or English.

Photo: Kulsoom Rizvi/IRC

"I really like my teacher because she is very patient in helping me understand words, grammar rules and reading stories sentence by sentence," Mahmoud says. "Everyone in the class struggles with French, so I didn’t feel as alone.… I am getting better every single day. I was able to write a paragraph in French and I was really proud of myself.”

The Syrian war has exposed children like Mahmoud to unspeakable atrocities and hardships, but many hold onto to their hopes and dreams.  “I want to study biology and become a doctor,” says Mahmoud. “I don’t like to see sick people. I saw a lot of sick people in Syria. I want to do my part and make people feel better.”

Now one of the top students in his public school, Mahmoud gives credit for his progress to the IRC class.

“I wouldn’t ask for anything else,” he says.