A Closer Look at the Work of UNRWA School Counsellors in Lebanon

10 August 2021
Screenshot of “Getting Back to School” a Zoom session to help students transition back to school. © 2021 UNRWA photo

In Lebanon, 48 UNRWA school counsellors (SCs) work tirelessly as part of the Education Department’s Education in Emergencies programme and its specific psychosocial support (PSS) strand, to nurture the intellectual and emotional growth of students and support them in reaching their full potential. The PSS programme adopts a three-pronged approach that involves engaging directly with children, their caregivers, as well as the Palestine refugee community at large, in order to foster an enabling environment where children are safe and protected. Agency school counsellors in Lebanon are able to do their essential work thanks to generous support from the Belgium Government and the European Union.

Lebanon in general, and the Palestine refugee community in particular, has faced a series of shocks over the past couple of years due to the deteriorating political, economic and security conditions in the country, which have been further compounded by the COVID-19 global health pandemic. Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 and the subsequent enforcement of a lockdown which resulted in the closure of UNRWA schools, the PSS programme immediately shifted to an online modality in order to ensure that essential PSS services continued without interruption. SCs have had to adapt their approach to remote counselling and activities that entail individual and group counselling; awareness sessions for students and caregivers; recreational activities; as well as advocacy campaigns and community events.

Caregivers and students alike have demonstrated high psychological and emotional distress due to the uncertainty around them, which has increased sentiments of fear, anxiety and hopelessness, among other concerns. The PSS programme has introduced targeted initiatives to promote social and emotional well-being in an environment that has seen increased incidences of student drop-out, divorce, domestic and/or child abuse, substance use, cyber-bullying and violence, as well as increased child labour—to name only a few of the most serious effects.

Fidaa Hourani at her desk in the UNRWA Al-Karameh School, Lebanon. © 2021 UNRWA photoFidaa Hourani, a school counsellor at Al-Karameh School in Naameh, pictured here in her office, describes her role as part of UNRWA’s PSS team in Lebanon:

 “One of the pillars of my work as a counsellor is to provide psychosocial support to both students and parents. My work is informed by a detailed and thorough understanding of students’ needs…My goal is to help students air their grievances while proposing coping mechanisms that help them realize their full potential.”


 Fidaa Hourani at her desk in the UNRWA Al-Karameh School, Lebanon. © 2021 UNRWA photo

 

“As a school counsellor, on a day-to-day basis I organize awareness group sessions for students and caregivers, as well as individual counselling sessions and regularly conduct ‘Care Calls’ to students,” she adds.

UNRWA school counsellors conduct routine ‘Care Calls’ to students and their families, to monitor their well-being, as well as give them the space to talk openly about their fears, anxiety and stress. Care Calls are also a means to strengthen relations with families, follow up on student participation in remote learning if frequent absences are observed, and/or detect any potential protection risks. Moreover, online awareness sessions are also held to raise awareness about pertinent and relevant issues, as well as provide students and caregivers with coping strategies such as relaxation exercises, stress management techniques, experience-sharing and positive affirmation practices.

Screenshot of “Getting Back to School” a Zoom session to help students transition back to school. © 2021 UNRWA photo
Screenshot of “Getting Back to School” a Zoom session to help students transition back to school. © 2021 UNRWA photo

To stay connected to students and their families during remote-learning, counsellors adopted a new approach to communication involving tools such as Zoom, WhatsApp and other social media platforms. “Our programme is designed and monitored by a team of specialized experts,” explains Fidaa. “On a daily basis, we use various communication tools, including videos and infographics, to circulate accurate information related to COVID-19 and help [students] with behaviours such as time management, positive thinking and more. We help them stay positive by encouraging them in their hobbies and showcasing their talents.”

Fidaa with one of her students participating the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign.  © 2021 UNRWA photo
Fidaa with one of her students participating the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. © 2021 UNRWA photo

“My work as a counsellor is intertwined with that of the school management, teachers, student parliaments and community-based organizations. Our support system includes mental health programmes, recreational projects, and a follow-up system that monitors students’ attendance and performance in class. We have a rigorous referral system in place to spot critical cases and we coordinate closely with community-based organizations through trusted partnerships. Our aim is to maximize outreach so that no student is left without the support they need.”

Many psychosocial and protection issues facing UNRWA students would go unnoticed without the early detection and intervention of the PSS programme. Counsellors actively outreach to students to monitor their well-being, determine if there is a need for more advanced PSS interventions, and/or identify any potential protection risks. The closure of schools has deprived children of key protective social and emotional benefits, which contribute to their holistic well-being. Nevertheless, the PSS programme has continued to monitor students and conduct referrals, when needed, to ensure appropriate and timely interventions.

Within the community, the PSS programme also carries out various initiatives to help foster an enabling environment for the protection of children. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, counsellors have launched numerous digital advocacy campaigns in collaboration with students, to disseminate messages on pertinent issues such as abuse, cyberbullying and the safe use of the internet. UNRWA students are also regularly encouraged to take part in international advocacy campaigns and spread key messages to their community. One such example is the annual “16 Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence” campaign.

Last year, UNRWA students in Lebanon designed posters and artwork or made short videos to share their messages with the community. Students circulated these messages through their social media networks, while counsellors shared material with education networks, local community-based organizations, NGOs and the wider Palestine refugee community through WhatsApp and social media. While the focus is digital now, prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the PSS programme regularly led in-person advocacy projects and community events such as student marches, public debates, theatre skits and more. These community initiatives draw links between schools, families and the wider community and engage key stakeholders in an effort to influence decision-making and advocate for the rights and protection of children.

Fidaa, and the whole of the PSS team, is dedicated to improving the well-being of Palestine refugee children and ensuring they receive the social and emotional support they need to continue on a positive trajectory, both now and for the future. By learning how to positively cope and overcome the shocks and pressures they face, Palestine refugee children are able to improve their academic performance and become active agents of change in their communities.