“If Palestine was free I would play outside with my friends. If Palestine was free I could ask my grandparents about their stories. If Palestine was free I would plant a thousand olive trees.”

The voices of Palestinian refugee children in Lebanon are mostly drowned out, by the government, by politicians, and sometimes unintentionally by their own parents and teachers. When you listen hard enough, however, you can hear their faint cries for peace and stability.

A 5-day drama workshop, organized by United Nations Relief and Work Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees from schools across the country, made sure some of their messages were heard this week.

With the help of British actor and director David Morrissey, star of films Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Sense and Sensibility, 65 children aged between 11 and 16 were brought together from different UNRWA schools to find out that learning is not always about what you read in books.

The children chose themes for each of their pieces, resulting in a performance Friday at Haifa school in south Beirut, and while some sung pop ditties of Arabic stars gone by, others chose morality plays with much deeper social messages.

When a child acts out watching her father die because she cannot afford the basic medication that would keep him alive, it is an unmistakable indictment of the system that allows it to happen. The message seems to be clear from a young age – that injustice makes up the very fabric of a Palestinian refugee’s life.

One piece entitled ‘If Palestine was free,” was particularly difficult for the proud parents in the audience to watch, many of whom all too aware what price their children pay for Israeli occupation.

“These performances help you to share in a history you might otherwise forget,” says one 13-year-old girl from the southern city of Tyre, glad to have workshops such as UNRWA’s. “It’s a chance to be listened to and tell your own views.”

Palestinians in Lebanon have long been relegated to an irreverent sub-story in the larger Lebanese narrative and have subsequently suffered from a lack of collective history, marred by massacres, uprisings and uprooting.

There are roughly 400,000 officially registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, making up 10 percent of the population. Thirty percent of those are children, most of whom have never met family living in Palestine or experienced much of life outside the south.

A recent Amnesty International report shows that the educational levels of Palestinian refugee children are nowhere near those of Lebanese children or even to those living in neighboring Arab host countries.

One out of three Palestinian children in Lebanon aged 10 or above leaves school before finishing their studies, believing that years spent in education is a waste when so many professions are barred to them in the country.

“This is not Gaza, this is not the West Bank,” the workshop’s director Morrissey says, “Lebanon is not Israel and the eyes of the world are not on these Palestinians.” Morrissey believes the plight of Palestinian refugees is overlooked, with the children in Lebanon left to suffer.

British actor David Morrisey at Haifa School, south Beirut

British actor David Morrissey at Haifa School, south Beirut

He says when he arrived at the school on the first day, the children were resistant to the workshop, but by the end they had let their guard down and began to enjoy the chance to express themselves. “The change that occurred in them in the last five days is astonishing,” he says, “they just need attention.”

Morrissey says the main problem is that children don’t always respond to education purely by rote, which is how most are being taught. “It doesn’t provide the opportunity to be listened to like drama does. It is important this sort of learning is built into the education system.”

This is not to say UNRWA is not trying to change the syllabus and respond better to the children’s needs throughout their 82 schools across Lebanon.

Recreational coordinator with UNRWA Lina al Ghoul believes more initiatives like the drama workshop need to be thought of to reach out to refugee children: “Educate a child through play and they will not be quick to forget,” she says.

“We have given them information in the old, tired way and they rejected it,” Ghoul says. “Though drama is often seen as an extra-curricular hobby it is so key to helping them learn real skills. The future for these children is letting them express themselves and the rest will be that much more bearable.”

Photo courtesy of fellow Daily Star staffer Sam Tarling

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