In the courtyard of a school in northern Lebanon refugee children from neighbouring Syria clamour to grab one of the flags of their country’s rebellion being handed out before they enter the classroom.
Rich or poor, from all over Syria, they are among 1,500 Syrian primary school children who began the new academic year studying in Lebanese schools after their families fled the bloodshed at home, and the flag is a poignant symbol for them.
“I am happy to be going to school,” said nine-year-old Seif al-Mohammed, who is among the group of excited children.
“I no longer hear shells or gunfire,” added Seif, who is from Homs, a city caught in the fiery rebellion that has gripped Syria since March 2011.
Seif and his classmates will soon be joined by older children, all attending one of 10 Lebanese schools along the country’s northern frontier with Syria.
Seven schools are run by Al-Iman al-Islami, which is affiliated with Jamaa Islamiya, an Islamic group close to the anti-regime Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and which runs a network of schools and hospitals in Lebanon.
“Education is free and we will provide a salary of $600 (465 euros) a month to Syrian teachers,” Ghassan Hobloss, the head of the private institution, told AFP.
According to Hobloss, the school receives funding from unnamed Gulf charities, and Jamaa Islamiya is offering funds of its own as well.
En route to the school, wealthy families in luxury cars mingle with modest Syrians walking behind their offspring in the October rain.
Many Syrian students missed school last year due to the conflict and the resulting lack of resources, especially the absence of Syrian teachers.
“My three primary school children are effectively starting the year over,” said Khadija, a 45-year-old from Daraa — the cradle of the uprising against embattled President Bashar al-Assad.
“I did not have the means to enrol them in a Lebanese school. Now, they have the opportunity to continue their studies.”
According to UNICEF, at least 30,000 children aged five to 17 have fled Syria to Lebanon and the number of child refugees in several parts of Lebanon remains higher than school capacity.
For those who manage to attend, lessons may take place in the same building as their Lebanese counterparts, but the courses and other key factors differ.
For example, science subjects are taught in French or English in Lebanon, while Syrian students study them in Arabic.
The schools also lack space, so Syrians have classes in the afternoon for three days after Lebanese children finish their lessons. Fridays and Sundays are holidays in some Islamic schools in Lebanon, which helps the Syrian children attend classes those mornings.
The textbooks from Syria, meanwhile, were photocopied but notably omit several passages glorifying Assad’s regime and the Baath Party, which has been in power for a half-century.
“The books are Syrian, but everything that has been distorted by the Assad regime has been deleted,” especially in the history books, said Hobloss.
Student refugees also no longer listen to the Syrian national anthem at the start of classes, as was the case every morning at home.
Fifty-year-old Tarek Zohbi, a resident of Homs, said he was delighted to see four of his children go to school, but remained concerned for his 20-year-old son, who cannot benefit from such efforts.
“I lost my house and everything I owned in Syria,” Zohbi said, adding with an air of determination: “I do not want my children to lose their future too.”