Lessons in love

There will be countless lessons that we take away from this time of isolation brought about by Corona Virus – many positive, as well as some less so.

The creativity and innovation, for example, that has opened up new possibilities for our virtual ways of meeting together will no doubt leave a lasting mark on how we work in future, not least for Embrace with its partners across the Middle East.

Meeting via a video link to pray with our Middle Eastern colleagues has been an enriching experience for us, and has helped us to feel more connected with them. It seems odd now that we didn’t think to do this earlier, but I’m sure it is a pattern that will continue.

For many of the families that Embrace’s partners serve though, the connectivity that the internet provides is a luxury that they do not have.

As a mother of three, I have been really challenged during this period of experimental home-schooling just how hard it is to do! Especially when you have children of different ages, each with differing needs, and all of whom need constant attention and support (and cajoling).   

I feel immensely grateful to the teachers in our local primary school for their creativity and resourcefulness – uploading weekly lesson plans with plenty of links, ideas and activities to help keep young minds engaged. I am also indebted to the wondrous thing that is the internet, and the abundance of resources freely available to download in an instant, just there, at my fingertips. But I’ll be honest: it has still been tough-going.

How much harder must it be, then, if you are an illiterate parent living in overcrowded living quarters with other extended family members, where you sleep and eat in the same room, and when your principal worry is about how to put a meal before your family each day?

For many families in Lebanon, this is the grim reality: not only for the >1 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees who continue to reside in the country, but for many poor Lebanese families too.

Even before the onset of Coronavirus, Lebanon was already in crisis-mode. The national economic emergency, which had been smouldering for months, came to a head in October 2019 when people took to the streets to protest years of mismanagement of their public resources. The country has been in a state of near political and economic paralysis ever since, with a public debt burden equivalent to 170% of GDP and unemployment levels steadily soaring.

For several months now, Embrace’s local partners have been giving out food parcels to many of the beneficiary families they serve as they struggle to cope – indeed survive – in such circumstances.

Then along came Covid-19. If you were a daily-wage worker dependent on an irregular income before, the chances of earning money to feed your family now become nigh impossible due to the restrictions imposed as a result of this global health emergency.

In this context, contemplating the educational needs of your children surely slips down the list of priorities – not least because you have limited or no resources at your disposal with which to teach them. As one Embrace partner shared, “Teaching remotely is a challenge when families have a phone for 10 or more persons, or no phone, or no more money to charge the phone…”

It is therefore, I think, a great testimony to the skill, creativity and commitment of Embrace’s partners that instead of being fazed by the challenge of distance learning they chose to rise to it. Partners like Tahaddi who work in a crowded, deprived area of Beirut.

Tahaddi’s Education Centre Director reflected:

“As the Covid-19 crisis seemed to be going to last longer than we expected, it became clear that we couldn’t leave the Tahaddi students out of learning. The mission of our education centre is precisely to give out-of-school children an opportunity to learn when it seems there is none for them anymore. Facing this new challenge, we decided to act.”

Since that time the Tahaddi students, who are all aged between 3-11 years old, have had daily Arabic, Math and English lessons, given through tutorials, videos, voice messages, pictures of worksheets – all delivered via WhatsApp. The teachers gave mini-tutorials on how to use the phone and complete their worksheets on it directly so they could send back their homework.

In this way, the children even received lessons in Music, Art, PE and Drama, as well as awareness videos about Covid-19, through which they learned how to make their own protective face-masks.

A Tahaddi staff shared with me a video of one child concentrating hard as he sat on a bare floor practising his numbers out loud in English, while his teacher spoke gently through the phone beside him.

 “We are amazed at the courage and resilience these children show in the midst of a stressful time when their parents do not know sometimes what they will cook for them during the day” the TEC Director said, “our incredible team of educators spend several hours per day patiently encouraging and praising the children’s work online”.

The children are so hungry to learn that many practise their lessons even when it isn’t a school-day!

But sadly – and unsurprisingly – this way of learning isn’t without its frustrations. Some 20% of the children that Tahaddi works with do not even have access to a phone, and so they are by default excluded from this home learning strategy. For the “lucky” ones that do, the phone must be shared with other family members, including several siblings who belong to different classes. Frequently the internet fails, or the pay-as-you-go bundle has been consumed and there is no money to renew it, or the father whom the phone belongs to has finally got a day’s work and takes the phone with him.

The Tahaddi team are doing what they can with the little that they have though, and they are determined to keep going. They do this because they are driven by an overwhelming compassion and deep conviction to serve this community on the margins. Their mission is one of hope; the approach is one of solidarity and sincere love.

In serving in this way, I believe that Tahaddi are modelling precisely what it means to be the hands, feet and heart of Jesus in the community they work with. Their staff, made up of professionals from different faiths, is united by common beliefs and values, a powerful message of peace and humility. So many other of Embrace’s partners are doing the same, faithful to their mission.

As I reflect on my own “challenges”, I am humbled and inspired by their tenacity and courage to stay faithful to their commitment to serve. For me, this truly is a lesson in love.

Sophia Peiris - Programmes and Partnerships Manager

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