by Dale Gavlak
NAOUR, Jordan (CNS) — Exuberant Syrian refugee children sang, danced and played with colorful clowns as they celebrated graduation at their Caritas-sponsored school in this sleepy suburb of the Jordanian capital, Amman.
Some 170 Muslim children, ages 5-17, proudly strode up on the outdoor platform of the Latin Patriarchate School of Naour, festooned for the occasion with red, yellow and orange balloons. They wore big smiles as they collected their certificates allowing them to move from primary to secondary school, while others completed high school.
The graduation march, “Pomp and Circumstance,” played in the background as Father Rifat Bader called out the students’ names and congratulated each one: Abdel Fattah Hisham al-Auda, Omar Karim Mohamed, Leen Nizar Laham . . . .
The graduation came at a time when many Syrian children are deprived of receiving an education. UNICEF, the U.N. children’s agency, estimates that more than 2.1 million children inside Syria and 700,000 in neighboring countries are out of school.
“We wish for the joy on these children’s faces to be like a prayer bringing peace and tranquility to our beloved Syria,” Father Bader told Catholic News Service at the ceremony July 11.
“We are proud to be in Jordan, a country which welcomes refugees. All in all, we have 290 Syrian children — both boys and girls — in 20 schools supported by Caritas Jordan. All are Muslims. This is our pride, to welcome the people without discrimination,” said Father Bader, who directs the Catholic Center for Studies and Media and whose home parish is the church in Naour with the school.
“Suffering people always need support and healing from wars and from those who have perpetrated these conflicts in Syria and Iraq,” the Catholic priest told CNS.
“This is very good,” beamed a mother named Um Karam, seeing her son graduate from his senior class. “I am happy that our children are able to realize their rights for education. Otherwise, they have no chance in life,” she told CNS.
“I am thankful to Caritas. I have never seen such wonderful program like theirs,” said the woman, dressed in a dark, long robe and a colorful scarf covering her head. Um Karam, using the Arabic familial name, “Karam’s mother,” said she and her family fled death and destruction in Syria three years ago.
“The Caritas teachers encourage the students to learn well. It’s important for them to be able to attend school daily to learn and study seriously. This protects our children and offers a brighter hope for the future,” Um Karam said.
The war in Syria has displaced nearly 4.8 million people, half of them children. Most fled for safety to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, while others risked their lives on rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean.
A number of Syrians have been living as refugees since the war began more than five years ago. Many young lives have been shaped by fear, violence and displacement.
UNICEF, Caritas and other international aid groups argue that education brings children and their families hope. Security and healing from trauma come by providing them a routine. Education also opens the opportunity to plan for the future, they say. Keeping children in school also protects them from exploitation and other dangers such as human trafficking, child labor, early marriage or falling prey to extremists.
Father Bader said it cost $140,000 to run the Caritas program at Naour for the past year, and that figure is multiplied twentyfold for the other school programs run by Caritas Jordan for Syrian refugees.
He said Caritas must raise funds for the program to continue in the coming term and has appealed for help.
“Teachers’ salaries must be paid and meals provided for the students. Caritas provides food aid, good medical services and good education. Their intellectual growth is no less important than other basic aid they receive,” Father Bader said. “It’s important to educate these children now to respect each other and look to the future in hope.”
The Syrian children showcased their many talents during the ceremony. Tiny girls in yellow, pink and green tutus twirled on the platform to everyone’s amusement, while slightly older boys and girls dressed in black and red embroidered costumes performed Syrian folk dances.
Other students captured the mood and cry of many Syrians, singing in Arabic: “Give us peace.”
“Caritas has given us love, care and support,” Joseph, one of the older students, told parents and faculty, speaking in English. “The teachers taught us many things. They gave us happy memories and many friends.”
“We pray to the merciful God in this Year of Mercy to give us peace, justice and joy,” Father Bader said, adding that “human cooperation must also accompany such prayers.”
“We hope that these prayers and children’s cries will reach those responsible to find political solutions,” the priest said.