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July 05, 2011

Libyan Children Struggle to Cope With Conflict

by Elizabeth Arrott

War's effects are often hardest on children, and the conflict in Libya is proving no exception. In this rebel stronghold, efforts are being made to help children cope.

Life in camps

A group of children play a pick-up match of football at the end of small drive. They shout, scramble for the ball, shove a bit harder than strictly necessary - in other words, a normal scene.  What's unusual is that these children are living in a refugee camp, having fled government attacks in their home towns.

The Red Crescent's Marei Abdel Salam el Jeouda is a director at the camp and remarks on the progress toward normalcy the children have made.

He remembers what it was like when the children came a few months ago and counselors encouraged them to draw what they had seen. The results were missiles, fighter planes, destroyed houses. Slowly that changed. Now, he says, they draw nature - the trees and the sea.

Lifes on hold

The children at the camp have come from farther west, and while they can play with ease, they know they are not likely to go home soon.

Even for children who have always lived in Benghazi, with its now relative calm, life, in some ways, is also on hold.

Schools were closed at the beginning of the uprising, leaving students without structure and with plenty of time to dwell on the fighting around them. In recent weeks, a few schools have begun to reopen, with the hope of filling the void.

Schooling

At a school in the Garden City district of the rebel capital, some of the students have returned for a few hours of classes. But not all are ready to come back. Hussein Mohamed al Awami is a former headmaster who came out of retirement to help.

He says some parents are keeping their children at home, worried for their safety because of the continued shootings and other disturbances in the city.  For those who do come, the classes are limited.  Arts and crafts seem to be the order of the day.

In one classroom, a teacher demonstrates how to make a box out of old CD's.  In another, the instructors pass out pencils and the children begin to draw. It may not be academically intensive, but it keeps them busy.

Gadhafi's curriculum

It also provides a clean break from the education system put in place by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi which, like many things in the country, highlighted the man and his works. Elementary student Yasser sits outside on a park swing, recalling his classes before the uprising.

The ten-year-old says he studied social science, especially housing and building projects. He adds he didn't learn very much. Nearby, Adel, a father of two boys, explains what high school was like for him, with the compulsory teaching of Gadhafi's manifesto, the Green Book.

"If you are told that you have to learn that 'a hen lays eggs and a rooster doesn't' - this is a funny sentence to say, you know, in this day and age," he said. "Everybody can say these kinds of things and you don't have to be a great thinker to say them."

Given such questionable profundities, Adel says that he doesn't mind that his children's studies are disrupted. Among the many things he hopes for if Gadhafi leaves are new textbooks.

"Some of the things that we have to learn, if you tell them to anybody outside of Libya, he will laugh at you, he will think that the guy's crazy, you know," added Adel. "We had learn to learn stuff against the normal, human thinking."

Back over on the swing, young Yasser agrees. He says he just wants to study math.