Spanish sisters provide a special school for Syrian children

Born out of a chance encounter on the streets of Beirut, volunteer-run school 26 Letters teaches 75 children
by Tommy Hilton

27 November 2018 | 12:20

Source: by Annahar

  • by Tommy Hilton
  • Source: Annahar
  • Last update: 27 November 2018 | 12:20

Sisters Janira and Tamar Taibo with friend German Pinto, runs classes and activities for children in Mar Elias, Beirut. (Source Tommy Hilton)

BEIRUT: 26 Letters provides an education and safe space for 75 Syrian children who are lacking a niche elsewhere. The school, founded by young Spaniards Janira and Tamar Taibo with friend German Pinto, runs classes and activities for children in Mar Elias, Beirut.

For the children, 26 Letters is more than just a school: “This is our home. We love 26 Letters. It is the best school in the whole world,” said Omar, 16.

“It has changed my life,” added Salah, 17, a student who has been with the school since its inception in 2015. “I want to go and write ‘I love 26 Letters’ in huge letters on the Raouché Rocks, for everyone to see.”

Entirely volunteer-run, 26 Letters operates out of an apartment converted into a school. The co-founders and a small army of volunteers teach daily English, Maths, Arabic, and History and Ethics classes. They also run a kindergarten and weekend activities for children who have little else to do.

Many of the children do not have access to regular education or are struggling in school. According to UNICEF, an estimated 200,000 Syrian children in Lebanon aged 6-14 were out of school 2017-2018. Those children that do have access to school often only attend afternoon ‘second shift’ sessions, a few hours a day, a necessity of scheduling in an overpopulated public education system.

These particular students cannot access services provided by other NGOs, said co-founder Janira: “A lot of the children live in areas such as Verdun which are forgotten by the NGOs because they’re not very poor areas. Their fathers are often concierges for apartment buildings.”

The school has no ethnic or economic requirements and teaches Lebanese children over the summer. “Anyone who comes and knocks at our door, they are welcome,” explained Janira. “We realize that all children need something, whether it is an education, social activity, or a place to play.”

Many of the children refer to Tamar and Janira as their big sisters, and the school runs a matching scheme which pairs students with volunteers. “26 Letters is like a family,” Janira told Annahar. “From day one we were all like brothers and sisters.”

While the three founders are now assisted by over 70 volunteers from multiple countries, the project has humble origins, emerging out of a chance encounter on the streets of Beirut in 2015.

Janira, then a 19-year-old student at USJ, befriended Salah and Muhammad, two Syrian boys, after they tried to sell her flowers in the street. Within a week, Janira was teaching English to Salah on the stairs of the National Museum of Beirut.

A week later, on his birthday, Salah broke down in tears and told Janira he wanted a better life. “He told me he wanted to go to school, to have normal friends, to have a normal life that every kid deserves,” Janira recounted to Annahar.

That night, Janira called her twin sister Tamar and explained the situation. Tamar dropped everything in Spain and came immediately to Lebanon, a country she had never been to before, to start a school for Salah.

While teaching Salah in a child protection center, the pair also began teaching a family of six Syrian children in a parking lot in Verdun.

“It became very cold and other kids started joining the classes until we had 20 kids in a parking lot with no center. My sister Tamar started looking around the streets searching for a place to rent,” said Janira.

The sisters eventually found a small apartment in Mar Elias. With co-founder German Pinto, a friend of Janira’s who began as a volunteer teacher but subsequently dedicated himself to the project, they established the school as it is today.

“We painted all the classrooms ourselves with help from volunteers and families of the children,” said Janira.

The co-founders also personally designed the school’s curriculum. “We found that the Lebanese curriculum didn’t work with the children, so we decided to create our own. We had no experience; we learned on the job,” said Janira.

The co-founders initially funded the project with their university scholarships and by working as nannies and waitresses. Since 2017, the school has been financed by a GoFundMe fundraising page which has currently raised €7,567 of the €25,000 target required for their plans to expand.

The school is currently oversubscribed and has a waiting list of over 150 families.

Janira outlined plans to create a new school in a bigger building, with nine grades and classes to help children pass their brevet school entry exams. The current center would be kept as a general support center running homework clubs and activities.

Although they don’t have the funding to expand yet, all three co-founders insist they are here for the long-run.

“This is our life. We will stay here forever until the last kids grow up and go to university,” said Pinto. The youngest child at the school is currently three years old.

“We believe in the butterfly effect,” explained Janira. “We may be changing 75 children’s lives now, but those 75 children will go on to change other people’s lives.”

Talking to their students, it seems their philosophy is working.

“I want to study humanitarianism at university,” said Salah. “My dream is to go with Tamar to Africa and set up a humanitarian organization there.”

“Lots of students here want to be humanitarians, including my sister,” added Omar. “We want to create a big 26 Letters. We will be the founders and teachers.”

“Going to school has changed our lives,” said Omar. “We want other children to be able to go to school too.”

Show Comments

An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.