How Trump Backlash Is Funding a Refugee Camp School in Lebanon

The financial challenges are daunting – but Donald Trump has unwittingly spurred a wave of donations that will help educate thousands of children.


BAR ELIAS, Lebanon — The dirt paths in the encampments turn into rivers of mud when it rains. Cold leaks through the canvas tents in the winter; some refugees have frozen to death during particularly vicious storms. But now it’s spring, and the fields outside the town of Bar Elias are green with budding wheat and potatoes. Inside the blue-and-white tents dotting these fields, however, the struggles to build a life remain as daunting as ever.

There are no well-ordered, state-run refugee camps in Lebanon; everything is haphazard. The tent encampments are built on private land, placing the refugees at the mercy of landlords, and scattered at random across the eastern Bekaa Valley, making it difficult for humanitarian organizations to coordinate support. Many of the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country live in conditions like this. It is as if an entire nation deposited itself in an area where one would expect to find nothing but agricultural land or the odd farmer tending his sheep.

A cluster of buildings, the largest of which is perhaps the size of a small barn, sits on the edge of the tent camp surrounded by a chain-link fence. This is the Kayany Foundation’s Telyani School, where children 6 to 13 attend classes in subjects such as English, Arabic, and math. The outer walls are adorned with cardboard cutouts of pink, red, and blue flowers. “Welcome Spring” reads a rainbow-colored sign. Children line up excitedly each morning outside the classrooms, a cheery contrast with the drab life outside the school.

Here, I am rarely introduced as a reporter or the Middle East editor of Foreign Policy. Rather, I am ibn Carol: the son of Carol. My mother is the head of the American nonprofit that raises money for the Kayany schools.

So while I make no pretense of objectivity when discussing Kayany, I can provide you with a few facts about the schools. I can tell you there are seven of them, including two all-girls schools, enrolling more than 3,400 students. I can tell you that a large portion of teachers are Syrian refugees, and that the schools serve 77,000 free meals per month. I can tell you that many of the children who attend these schools would probably receive no education at all if it weren’t for Kayany, and that every time I have visited, clusters of children linger outside the chain-link fence around the schools, hoping to be allowed in. 

Kayany operates on a mix of partnerships with larger organizations and private donations. For example, it received financial support from the Malala Fund to open the all-girls schools, and has partnered with organizations like the Jesuit Refugee Service to operate them. After salaries are paid, textbooks are bought, and meals are prepared, it costs Kayany $1.7 million per year to fund its operations. The organization relies heavily on private donations — and until recently, raising that money was no easy feat. (It’s not just Kayany. The U.N. humanitarian response plan, which is meant to provide support for Syrians who haven’t left the country, suffers from a funding gap of $2.9 billion in 2017 alone.)

But in January, the efforts of American nonprofits to raise money in support of Syrian refugees received a boost from the unlikeliest of sources: Donald Trump. The newly inaugurated U.S. president had just issued the first travel ban, which would have suspended the entry of Syrian refugees indefinitely, sparking a wave of “rage donations” by Americans incensed by the executive order. Jennifer Patterson, the deputy executive director at USA for UNHCR, which raises money for the U.N. Refugee Agency and other partners, said that the weekend after the travel ban, her organization experienced a 370 percent surge in traffic on its website and the second-largest fundraising weekend in its history.

Kayany, too, has since seen a wave of donations. Money poured in from organizations of Arab-American college students; art dealers in New York were suddenly eager to help organize charity auctions in support of the schools. “People were just aghast. It just hit a raw nerve,” said Jumana Elzayn, a Syrian-American living in California who has donated to Kayany. “This is not what our country is about.”

But in the Syrian refugee camps of Lebanon, there is still not enough — not enough schools, not enough psychosocial support, not enough money. Some students start drifting away from school before they reach their teenage years, because their parents need them to work. Amina Al Zein, the administrator of the Telyani school and a refugee herself, said there are roughly 100 children in the school’s first grade, but only 13 in the sixth grade. The rest, she says, have gone to work.

Eleven-year-old Aya worked in the potato fields last summer, rising at 4 a.m. to begin her shift and then heading to school at noon. She’s a slight, precocious girl who regularly drowns out her classmates in her determination to be heard. Her favorite classes are Arabic and English, she says, because she “wants to understand everything.”

Only the most menial employment is available, and preteens work in factories or the fields for as little as $10 a week. Her mother eventually stopped her from working because Aya was experiencing backaches. She might return this summer; her father is dead, and her family needs the money.

But it will be only during the summer, Aya insists, not when Kayany opens its doors. She juts out her chin and smiles proudly. “I don’t let anything stand in the way of coming to school.”

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of FP magazine. 

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Kayany Foundation

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