JBEIL: At 22, Lebanese-American Dahlia Rizk had moved to Chicago, was about to start a master’s in clinical psychology and had found an apartment and a job. But after one month, she returned to Beirut to embark on training to become a teacher at a rural primary school in a disadvantaged area.
“I’d always been encouraged by everyone to move to [the] States as soon as possible, as I had joint citizenship. People used to always say, ‘Shu badik bi Lubnan?,’ (‘What could you want from Lebanon?’),” Rizk says.
“But I just became really sick of people saying that you can’t make a future here. I had this thing pulling me back to my country.”
For Rizk, who graduated in psychology from the University of Balamand, this “thing” was Teach for Lebanon, the national branch of Teach for All, which operates in 24 countries around the world.
The program recruits fresh graduates from a variety of majors and provides intensive training before assigning each new teacher, or fellow, to a school for two years. Each country program focuses on specific issues: In Lebanon this is the high drop-out rate among fourth graders in rural areas.
“At first my parents were devastated,” Rizk recalls. “They had also been educated in the U.S. and they thought I was coming back for a boy or something. But no, I just want to do something for my country. I want to change the system a bit, and I can’t do that on my own, so it is good to do it as part of a program such as this.”
Salyne al-Samarany, Teach for Lebanon program manager and herself an ex-fellow, explains that while children are legally required to stay in school, this is often not enforced, and for a variety of reasons many students in rural areas drop out of school around the ages of 6 to 8.
Often, she says, teachers in rural areas do not remain in the job for long periods of time, or are themselves not very motivated. Also, Samarany adds, parents “are not exposed to how education can change a child’s life.” And “a child who is repeatedly failing is often just pulled out of school by his parents,” as, even in public schools, the cost of books and uniforms can be a huge burden on the family.
TFL started in 2008, and this is the third year that fellows are being trained (last year fundraising issues meant the program couldn’t go ahead). Over 250 applied this year, with 15 currently undergoing the six-week intensive training period, which has seen them spending the mornings teaching at Al-Hajj school in Jbeil and using the afternoons to reflect and plan for the next day’s lessons.
TFL mainly focuses on primary level education, and makes it a priority to fill certain gaps in the school’s curriculum or needs, and never replaces current staff.
The training, Samarany says, is “Not just educational, but it’s social, communicative and psychological.”
Sami Azar, 24, a political science and public administration graduate from the Notre Dame University, has always been interested in educational reform, and this attracted him to TFL.
He also believes it is important to introduce children at a young age to different concepts and ideas. “Clashes between different communities often happen because people have been raised and taught in a certain way,” Azar says. “So to solve the problem you really have to start from the roots.”
Richard Alam, currently support manager for the program, was teaching English at the British Embassy in Beirut when he decided to apply to become a fellow in 2010.
Placed in a school in Akkar, a region he had only visited once for a hike, Alam soon found his whole life packed up in his car. “And I drove up to Akkar, and I lived there for two years. I loved it. It was different, it was challenging.”
Although he gave up a higher salary, and a certain lifestyle in Beirut, a city he had always lived in, Alam says people who are attracted to TFL “are looking for a sense of achievement and satisfaction that probably does not come from a better paying job.”
The biggest challenge he faced was the children, and dealing with new situations. “Sometimes you are faced with kids who are being beaten by their parents, and parents who don’t necessarily believe in education in the first place.”
Often, he says, he was the “the only exposure they’ve had from the capital.” But just as he did not know Akkar well, and the children did not know Beirut, the program, Alam says, “is not only you teaching them, it’s them teaching you too. You learn so much. You learn about yourself and about your country.”
For Nadim Haidar, a 23-year-old politics and philosophy graduate from the American University of Beirut, and one of this year’s fellows, this aspect of civic engagement was one of the main draws of the project.
“It’s a cyclical relationship, whereby I will learn about my country and my people and my language and these areas I’ve never been to. Not only that, but to teach myself their values and traditions, and in return I will be teaching them English.”
After spending the last four years collaborating with activists on a variety of different issues, Haidar was also driven to engage in a different way.
Much of the activism, he says, “was frustrating because I never really saw good results. It had this very self-seeking, self-interested feeling to it.”
Teaching in this program, he believes, allows for a more immersed and organic form of activism, which will also allow him to “give back, in whatever way I can.”
Haidar has also seen how education can change lives. “Education saved me. I came from a not so rich family, and the only way I got out of my situation was because I got a good education ... it’s not the way out, but it opens doors.”