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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Parenting

Children of Syria: Schooling a lost generation

Posted: 08 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Children who have fled Syria to Lebanon have witnessed and experienced things no child should.

Each morning at 8am, Ahmed stirs from his blanket on the soil and walks about a mile to the morning shift. Sometimes his two sisters go with him. More children soon join him from nearby potato fields and tents, on their way to the first of the day's three school sessions. A second wave of small children carrying oversized blue school bags appears at noon, and another in the late afternoon.

Ahmed is usually met with a bear hug from a Lebanese social worker, Maria, who for the past two years has been part social worker, part disciplinarian and, more often than not, mother figure for him and the other Syrian children who attend this makeshift school house in the heart of the Bekaa Valley.

All the children are refugees, most have lost at least one parent, and every one has a story of deprivation and loss. But all seems to be forgotten for a few hours in this school among the crops and tents where the children of war come to learn.

Syria's civil war is trampling on its children as easily as it is killing its adults. The 400,000 child refugees now in Lebanon represent a lost generation; many who have fled here have been denied an education for three years.

Poverty is not their only constraint. Until recently, enrolling Syrian refugees in Lebanese schools was close to impossible, and getting any form of education at all was almost as difficult.

Things are slowly changing for some. Since early this year, the Lebanese government has allowed double shifts in state primary schools, meaning refugee children can attend the second shift in some schools. Syrians enrolled in the Lebanese system receive formal qualifications when they graduate. But not all are as fortunate.

Schools such as Ahmed's are considered informal and not recognised by the government.

Syrian teachers are allowed to teach here, but they must stick to a Lebanese curriculum and, at the end of the year, the progress of children is not recognised. That means they cannot advance to secondary schools or be accepted into the state system.

For the eager students in this school though, it clearly doesn't matter. A group aged between five and eight are sitting outside around a table as their teacher, a businessman from Homs who lost his home and livelihood two years ago, teaches them how to paint.

"Life was different before this," he says. "But I have found dignity in the therapy of art. I love these children."

The children watch in silence as he etches small white geese on to a landscape on a wood panel. Then all the children take turns, including Fatima, whose mother died during a winter storm four months ago.

Most teachers live among their students in the informal refugee camps that dot the area. Ahmed lives in one of them with his five siblings. His older brother Nimr, 15, is acting as head of the family, and takes the lead in caring for Kamel, who has not been the same since he pulled his mother's body from the rubble of their family home in Idblib early last year.

Shortly afterwards, the family's father, Mohammed, drove his five children to the Lebanese border, waved them goodbye, then left. They have not heard from him since, and have long ago used the small amount of money they had to rent a tent space and buy food.

"We ran away from problems and problems followed us," said Nimr, squatting on the floor of the tent he now shares with his new wife, Fatima, also 15. "It would have been better if we all died with my mother. It would have been easier," he said.

"I feel I am not up to this responsibility," said Nimr, pointing at his siblings. "I cannot feed them." He holds up a debt book with a long list of IOUs that he cannot possibly repay.

"Lots of these children have suffered so much," Maria said. "The stories they all tell are heart-breaking. All of them."

The scale of suffering faced by Syria's children is a reflection of a society in terminal decline. More than 150,000 people have been killed since the war began, and close to half the country's 22 million population is now on the move; at least 6.5 million are internally displaced, and almost 3 million have made it into neighbouring Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq, where staying alive takes precedence over learning.

Nonetheless, the fear of a lost generation is an increasingly dominant theme among humanitarian bodies which are having more luck reaching vulnerable communities who have made it to exile than in reaching those left behind.

"We need to prevent losing a whole generation of children from Syria. Giving them opportunities to learn, developing their skills and healing the wounds of the conflict is vital for the future of these children and for Syria," a Unicef spokesman said. – Guardian News & Media

Respect and acceptance among in-laws

Posted: 08 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Mary Ting and her son-in-law have even taken to watching TV together in the evenings, passing the remote controls back and forth.

Many of his friends view mothers-in-law as formidable figures, and it made K. K. Lee nervous when he first met his (then) girlfriend's mother, Mary Ting.

"I did have my reservations, but I wasn't terrified or anything. I just didn't expect that I would be asked to fix the broken bulb on the front porch, which was what my future mother-in-law requested of me just as I walked through the gate," recalls the retail manager who of course carried out the task.

If that was a test, 40-year-old Lee passed. That was three years ago. Since then, Lee has come to realise that Ting is a practical and kind woman who put her family first, and has a soft spot for her youngest daughter Rachel Kow, whom he was dating.

Lee and Kow got married and have been staying with Kow's parents for over a year.

"I was worried when we first decided to live with Rachel's family. Although I did get along with my in-laws, I was concerned that there would be clashes. After all, getting along with someone is one thing; staying with them is another," Lee opines.

Fortunately for him, he was welcomed into the family fold with graciousness and warmth. Lee says that staying at the in-laws is not unlike staying in his own home.

"My mother-in-law regards me as her own son. She'll pack breakfast for me to take to work and cook my favourite dishes for dinner."

The mother and son-in-law have even taken to watching TV together in the evenings, passing the remote controls back and forth.

"I've always been close to my own mum and now I've gained another mother. I've heard some scary mother-in-law stories from my friends but at the end of the day, it all boils down to how you manage your relationships.

"I think respect must always be there whether or not you get along with your in-laws. There's not a lot you need to do – just love them as you would your own family," Lee quips.

To Kow, there's not a more heartwarming sight than that of her husband and mother sharing a laugh together over something as simple as a TV commercial.

"One of my main criteria for a husband was that he loved not only me, but also the two most important people in my life: my parents. I really feel blessed that K. K. can get along so well with them. I think there are times when he puts his ego aside just to make me and my family happy. Living together is a lot about give and take," Kow, 33, says.

Described as quite the easy-go-lucky mother-in-law, Ting isn't one for having high expectations of her daughter's husband.

"My requirements are simple: as a son-in-law, all I ask of him is to love my daughter, and have respect for his elders. I must say that K. K. has been brought up very well in that aspect – he never fails to greet me and my husband in the mornings and evenings, and always lets us know when he is leaving the house, or when he's back. It may seem like something really unnecessary, but the acknowledgement means a lot to us old folks," Ting, 65, shares.

Ting is pleased that Lee has also willingly taken on the odd jobs around the home – the occasional spring cleaning and bathing of their three family dogs.

"He's not someone that needs to be asked to do something – he takes the initiative to help out around the house. Based on what I hear from my friends, I would say that that's quite rare when it comes to sons-in-law."

The mother-of-three says she cares for Lee like she cares for her two sons.

"A lot of my relatives are envious of my relationship with my son-in-law. Some even think that I'm spoiling him because I'm always cooking for him and providing for him, but it makes me happy to see the children happy.

"I think whether you're a mother or mother-in-law, one has to be understanding when it comes to living with adult children – they already have enough pressure at work and in their personal life without having you nagging after them. To have a harmonious relationship in the family, one shouldn't harp on the little things and instead, focus on the big picture," says Ting.

Related stories:

Circle of love: Mothers-in-law who are just like mum

An easy rapport with mum-in-law

Mum-in-law and daughter-in-law who cherish each other

Mum-in-law and daughter-in-law who cherish each other

Posted: 08 May 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A mother of three sons, Mary Anne Michael had always wondered what it would be like to have a daughter.

"My sons have always played their parts as good, obedient boys. My husband and I are very proud of their achievements and love them very much. But it always felt like I was missing the companionship of a daughter, someone to go to the movies with, or offer more than a general "Yes, it looks nice" when I'm shopping for clothes!" says Mary.

Therefore, when her sons told her they were getting married, she was over the moon because there would finally be girls in her family.

"We have been blessed with boys in our family – sons and nephews. So, when my boys announced they were finally tying the knot, my husband and I were ecstatic.

"My daughters-in-law have brought a new spark into the family and what's even more wonderful is that we've recently been graced with grand babies!" says the proud grandmother to twin grandchildren.

Dancer January Low who is her second daughter-in-law says she has always felt more than welcomed into Mary's family.

"Even when my husband and I were dating, his mother treated me like a queen. Whenever we visited her, she would always put my needs first and then my husband's," says the 29-year-old Low who has planned Mother's Day activities for her mother-in-law for the past three years. 

Low makes it a special day, and the two ladies usually bond over good food, Tamil movies or simply head out for a relaxing and fun-filled time.

Low's mother and father live in Phuket, Thailand. "My mum had me when she was only 21-years-old. She has always been my best friend and we did everything together. My mother and mother-in-law are two very different people and of different generations.

"I realised the dynamics of our relationships differ. I have formed a different kind of respect towards my mother-in-law.

"She is a lovely person and carries herself with distinction. She is also full of compassion and has always been very nurturing since the day I met her.

"When I was pregnant, my mother-in-law fussed over me like any mother would, over her son. She prepared my favourite food every day and ensured I was always comfortable. She would attend to my needs and made me feel so special," says Low.

Mary is proud of her daughter-in-law.

"The world is changing and we have to change with it. In my days, men were the breadwinners of the family and women were meant to stay home and take care of the household. However, January and my son share the responsibilities of raising a family together and I have never been so proud to have her in our clan," says Mary.

Low believes that what brings them together is the mutual respect they have for each other. "My sister-in-law and I are the daughters my mother-in-law never had. Therefore, we take our roles as daughters-in-law seriously and always remember that she is the reason we have such wonderful husbands.

"My mother-in-law has certainly made a huge impact on my life. I am looking forward to spending many more days with her," says Low.

Related stories: 

Circle of love: Mothers-in-law who are just like mum

Respect and acceptance among in-laws

An easy rapport with mum-in-law

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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