The Scottish-based charity Mary’s Meals has extended its school feeding programme into Syria to help long-suffering children rebuild their lives following years of brutal civil war.
In partnership with the Dutch organisation Dorcas, the charity is working in six schools in Aleppo, providing nearly 1500 children with a daily meal in their place of education.
The move marks a significant and direct expansion of Mary’s Meals into the Middle East, following a pilot programme with Dorcas in Lebanon last year, where it began providing daily meals to Syrian refugee children and their Lebanese classmates in a school near the capital, Beirut.
With Lebanese and Syrian mothers volunteering side-by-side to implement school feeding, the programme has now been extended to reach children at the Bourj el-Barajneh refugee settlement in the southern outskirts of Beirut, bringing the total number of children benefiting from Mary’s Meals in Lebanon to 1,430.
In Syria, where 1.7 million children are out of school and 69% of the population are living in extreme poverty, the Mary’s Meals programme is designed to encourage children – who for a large part of their young lives have endured unimaginable trauma – into the classroom where they can receive a nutritious meal and an all-important education.
Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, Mary’s Meals’ founder and chief executive, said: “After a four-year long battle for Aleppo and tens of thousands of deaths, the siege – at least for now – is over. At last, children have the chance to start regaining their lost childhoods.
“Through Mary’s Meals, both the immediate, desperate needs of today, and the longer term necessity of education, will be nourished and nurtured through each meal served by local volunteers.
“The promise of this simple meal, made possible by the continuing love and generosity of Mary’s Meals supporters all over the world, will provide hope and encouragement to communities taking their first tentative steps on a very long and uncertain road to recovery.”
Mary’s Meals’ provides daily meals to more than 1.1 million children every day they attend school, working in 14 countries including Malawi, Liberia, Zambia, Kenya, Haiti, India and South Sudan.
The average global cost to provide a child with Mary’s Meals for a whole school year is just £13.90, and the charity is committed to spending at least 93% of donations directly on its activities.
The Mary’s Meals campaign was born in 2002 when Magnus visited Malawi during a famine and met a mother dying from Aids. When he asked her eldest son Edward what his dreams were in life, he replied simply: “I want to have enough food to eat and to go to school one day.”
Counting on support from across the globe, Mary’s Meals now has registered affiliate organisations in Austria, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Italy, Ireland, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States, as well as international fundraising groups in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, France, Portugal, Slovenia, and the United Arab Emirates.
The story of a Syrian refugee family
As the bus her family was travelling on approached another checkpoint, 13-year- old Amal and her siblings feigned sleep.
Only the elderly and very young were permitted to leave the area where her family lived in eastern Syria, so Amal’s mother Hiba knew that the survival of her five children depended on fooling the guards into believing she was their grandmother.
“I changed my look as women were not allowed to leave the local area – only elderly people,” Hiba says. “My brother helped. We got papers for him to receive medical treatment in Damascus, so I pretended to be his elderly mother to go with him.
“The children were allowed to leave, but we had to pretend they were asleep at all the checkpoints so that no-one would ask them questions.”
The family were among the one million refugees who have made the treacherous journey from Syria into Lebanon in search of safety.
For Amal, who now receives Mary’s Meals every school day, it also meant a reunion with her father, Omar, who had moved to Lebanon three years before to find work to support his family.
“I remember everything,” she says. “We bought fruit for the journey. A bus came to take us from our home. We were afraid and ran to the bus. When we saw checkpoints I didn’t look at the people… I was very scared in case I said something I shouldn’t and did something bad to the whole family. I was so happy when I got to Lebanon and got to see my dad!”
One year on, the family are more settled. Omar works in a local restaurant and acts as the concierge for the apartment building in which the family share a modest room.
“I used to come to Lebanon to work even before the war,” Omar says. “We had a big home [in Syria] and I was not planning on bringing my family here, but ISIS were killing people in their homes so I had to. Because of the situation, my wife’s health was affected and she became diabetic.
“When the conflict began, the children had to stop school, we could not get medication. I was afraid of Amal being asked for marriage because of her age. And ISIS wanted money from our land that we farmed. They stopped my brother’s photography business; we don’t know why. They just came to make us afraid.
“After the family left there were attacks in the area and we lost 17 family members who lived there. All, maybe except one or two, were women and children.”
Life is not easy for the family in their adopted country. More than 71% of refugees live below the poverty line in Lebanon – often unemployed or with unstable temporary work, without enough food and surviving in squalid conditions.
Despite working 12 hours a day, Omar and the family are struggling financially. He suffers from leg pain and worries about how he would pay expensive hospital bills should his wife or one of his children fall ill.
“One of the neighbours gave us clothes and sometimes gives us food. I am praying things will stay like this. To bring the family from Syria I had to pay $5000, so I have debt.”
But Amal and three of her siblings have recently begun receiving Mary’s Meals in school, offering them the chance of a brighter future.
“The first day they went to school we had no food to give them,” explains their mother, Hiba. “When we were told that they were getting food we were happy because now they can eat and also be equal to their friends. It is a big support.”
Omar adds: “The children are very happy to be going to school. I worry often that we won’t have enough food at home; the children often want more to eat but we can’t give it to them. I am happy as a father that someone is teaching them and feeding them.”
Omar longs to return to Syria with his family, but only if he can guarantee their safety.
“The last time I visited I saw my brother; he had blood on his shoes and I asked why. He said [ISIS] had cut off the heads of three people who lived in the village. I didn’t believe him. So, we got on the motorcycle and he showed me. They had cut off their heads and hung them in the middle of the village.
“They left them there for three days. It was horrifying for the children and the families. As long as the situation is like this, we can’t go back. My hope is that the war stops and we can go back to Syria or else we are re-settled. We have a big hope to return to Syria but right now there is no hope.
“What Mary’s Meals have offered in school is so useful. What is important is education.”