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Youth Program Tries to Ease Lebanese Syrian Tensions

  • Paige Kollock

As Syrian refugees stream into Lebanon, tensions between Lebanese and Syrians are growing daily. Strains over space and resources are heightened by historic frictions. Young people especially feel the tensions, and one effort called "Youth Initiatives" is bringing students together in an effort to minimize prejudice and build friendships.

On a chilly Sunday in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Lebanese and Syrian children are busily making puppets. Sitting side by side, they draw, cut and refine their creations, hoping the glue is not the only thing that sticks.

Despite a history of tensions between their two countries, these students are learning to respect each other through a program called “Rainbow of Hope.”

The program provides leadership and conflict resolution skills through extracurricular activities.

Nidal Khaled is the director of the program. He says the Syrian army’s former presence in Lebanon is one reason for the tensions, but there are others.

"The Lebanese media is playing a negative role by making Lebanese scared of the Syrian refugees. The media too are also imposing some ideas that the Lebanese are of a higher class. In addition, most of the refugees are really poor, so their lifestyles are different from Lebanese," Khaled said.

Rainbow of Hope started three months ago and is funded by the U.S. government. Once a week, students convene for activities such as basketball, puppet shows, plays, films and cultural excursions.

Sometimes the differences can be as basic as language, says Syrian student Rama Salib. "I didn’t understand them because they speak Lebanese dialect," Salib said.

But since the program started, Khaled says he is already seeing better relations between the students.

Lebanese student Asma Harouk said: "When the Syrians first came, I didn’t know them, I didn’t interact with them. Now I feel there’s a friendship between us because of these activities."

With war in Syria raging just over these hills, it is hard not to think about the hardships some of the children have been through, says one of the teachers Lilianne Hamzeh.

"We are trying our best to make them equal, but sometimes you are finding yourself feeling with the Syrians much more because of what they faced before," Hamzeh said.

While refugees from Syria's war receive food, housing and blankets, few programs address their psychological and social needs.