Lebanese children and Syrian refugee children in precarious conditions are offered a respite from street work with the "Fun Bus" initiative. A brightly colored bus drives around the neighborhoods of Beirut to offer games and learning activities to kids who otherwise face a hard life on the street. The initiative hopes to reduce the amount of time the children spend working outside.
The project is jointly funded by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the European Union and implemented by the Lebanese NGO Makhzoumi Foundation.
A chance to relax from street work
"I don't like being on the street," says Alaa, a 14-year-old boy originally from Aleppo in Syria. "I get assaulted, I don't feel safe. But here, I play, draw and learn." On the "Fun Bus", Alaa is learning the alphabet, which makes a welcome change from selling bottled water for around 10 US dollars a day.
"They call to us here, they tell us to come and play," says Abed, a 12-year-old refugee from Syria. "We love coming here," he said.
UNHCR said in a statement that the project launched in 2018 and has already reached hundreds of children working in Beirut, most of whom are from among the nearly 950,000 registered Syrian refugees currently living in the country. The children are forced to work to help support their impoverished families, depriving them of the chance of a normal childhood and an education.
"We roam around Beirut, in all of its neighborhoods," said Nadine Moussa from the Makhzoumi Foundation. "We do psycho-social support activities, basic literacy and numeracy classes and handcrafts," she said. "The children have a safe space to express themselves," she said. "Here, they are respected and appreciated. They get to live their childhood, even if for just a few hours."
A project to give children back their childhood
The "Fun Bus" initiative is part of a wider programme by UNHCR and its partners that aims to "eventually stop children from working on the streets altogether," said Sirine Comati from UNHCR. The programme seeks to engage with the families of working children and encourage them to get their kids off the streets. Parents receive vocational training to help them find job opportunities, ensuring they are no longer reliant on the money their children bring in.
Where possible, the children themselves are enrolled in schools. Many have either never attended classes or have missed out on years of their education. Through this approach, the programme has so far successfully taken 150 children off the streets in the past two years, but many challenges remain, the UNHCR notes. More than two-thirds of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live below the poverty line, often leaving families with no other option than to send their children out to work.