The causes and effects of major issues like bullying are always subject to many cultural-specific factors. In a country like Lebanon, where cities may constitute of inhabitants from different religious sects and a variety of nationalities, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, the conflicts between the adults can find their way to the school environment. Intolerance and racial discrimination are often prevalent among the parents, and the sociopolitical motivations for violence can clearly be found in children young enough to not even properly understand the source of their prejudice. Here we attempt to explore how bullying in Lebanon is practiced, encouraged and fought by the concerned parties.
Status of Reporting Bullying
To understand the extent of bullying in Lebanon correctly, one must first properly study the numbers, the statistics, and the incident reports. But unfortunately there is a serious lack of all of the aforementioned, making the evaluation process a lot harder. What we know is, in a society segregated by civil war, issues like bullying can easily be brushed off and ignored. Often are the children all on their own. Even more so, there are incidents where reported cases of bullying have been presented to the school board by the victim’s family, but then they have been dismissed with no resolution or a promise of a solution. But more on that later.
No-Label is a Beirut-based NGO that aims at raising awareness of the tragic consequences of bullying. The founder, Nour Al-Assad, had had personal experience with bullying as a child. The lack of helpful resources in her mother tongue (Arabic) has inspired her to do something to encourage a positive change. “One day I began to Google ‘bullying’ in Arabic, and I found almost no results. That’s when I decided to step up ‘No Label’ as simply a Facebook page,” Al-Assad said. Apparently the Facebook page was a success, and has since then grew into a no-gain organization. “The main problem in Lebanon is the lack of understanding of what the exact definition of bullying is,” and their goal, she resumes, is to “help draft and pass legislation that will combat bullying in schools from a legal perspective.”
There’s no country-issued legalization that mandates an official policy to deal with bullying; though schools might create their own. And with the scarcity of state-sponsored efforts to combat bullying, individual groups seem to be doing most of the work. Be it among Lebanese students or between the former and refugees from Syria or Palestine, bullying is significantly prevalent, and appears to be on the increase.
Racial Bullying in Lebanon
In addition to the types of bullying frequently seen across the world, Lebanese schools also suffer from severe racial bullying. The phenomenon is not exclusive to children at school; it extends to the workplace and to the streets. Interracial and inter-ethnic couples are frowned upon; anyone who doesn’t look “Caucasian” enough doesn’t look “Lebanese” enough. “Demeaning gestures, head-shaking, stares, and under-the-breath comments are the most passive of the reactions we get in public,” a Filipina woman, married to a Lebanese man, shared her day-to-day experience in Lebanon.
“Couples who are driven by love to cross the color line face socially-constructed derision because they, and their mixed-race children, provoke the invisible yet existing laws of racial segregation.”
Children at home seem to absorb the general hostility against all that’s different, and they act upon it at school. Children of color are collectively picked on, called names and racial slurs, and treated as if “unclean.” The children of lighter skin would call the darker-skinned child “chocolate” or “Sri Lanka boy,” and in some incidents a group of Lebanese children threw water on a dark-skinned child to “wash the dirt off his face.”
“I remember one time, light-skinned Lebanese students refused to sit next to an Afro-Lebanese kid because they thought his dark skin color was ‘contagious’ and they feared they would turn black.”
Nasrallah, founder and director of Insan Association
Syrian children face daily episodes of bullying, in the classroom and in the bus. Group bullying can be a frightening experience, because this is not an individual case or a certain bad kid that needs to be corrected; it’s everyone against one foreign child or too. And even if the school officials or teachers want to intervene (which isn’t often the case), it’s very difficult to control a whole class or effectively protect a child from the whole school.
School System in Lebanon
A study has found that the most prevalent forms of bullying in Lebanon are “mocking religion, sect, or ethnicity.” We have spoken with a Lebanese journalist who explained how the previous fact seems to affect the entire educational system in Lebanon.
Schools in Lebanon, like anywhere else, can be either private or governed by the state. State-schools are scattered around the country, and since sectarian segregation makes it so that whole regions are inhabited by people of the same sect/religion, it is also so that the region’s school would cater only to children of said sect/religion. Private schools follow the same policy. It is safer when conflicting parties don’t have to share a classroom together. Secular multi-religious schools do also exist, but these are often populated by children from liberal backgrounds and do rarely witness inter-religious aggression.
When it comes to children of Syrian refugees, the challenges are many. Firstly, there is the radical change in curriculum. Syrian children are used to learning particular subjects in Arabic (like Maths), but are then forced to learn them in English or French in a Lebanese school. The shift can cause even more segregation, since the Syrian children can’t keep up with their classmates or even with their teachers. Consequentially, the gap between the two groups expand.
Teachers themselves don’t seem to be capable of getting the two groups together. One teacher, responding to a bullying complaint of a Syrian child, has simply said, “I do not have a magic wand to fix Lebanon.” And though this reaction may seem passive to most, the problem with bullying in Lebanon is so far rooted into politics that it’s difficult to separate the two.
While many teachers put a lot of effort into bridging the gaps between Lebanese children and Syrian or Palestinian refugees, their attempts are still too humble to affect a real change. Often the school administration itself is a big part of the problem. In the case of Muayid, a Syrian child, his school administration has even deprived him and the rest of his Syrian school mates of their state-given right to acquire textbooks free of charge. The same books, provided by the government, were distributed on the Lebanese children instead.
As we previously mentioned, Syrian children would require extra attention from teachers in the particular subjects that they used to study in Arabic. Without honest efforts from the class teacher to assist the child with a language he/she is not familiar with, this child practically has no chance of succeeding. This could explain the high numbers of Syrian dropouts from Lebanese schools, since they are not only picked on by their classmates, but also bullied (or ignored at best) by their teachers.
The aim of this short review is not to diminish the role of the Lebanese state in providing refugees from nearby regions with a chance to start again. But the issues facing non-Lebanese children are less the state’s fault and more the people’s. It is the culture and the bigotry instilled in many since infancy that breed a hostile tense environment where even the youngest of children have to suffer the repercussions of a permanent civil war.