When Suha Tutunji was 10 or 11 years old, war broke out in her home country of Lebanon. She had weeks at a time of interrupted schooling and it was a struggle to get an education at times.
Now Tutunji is the academic director of the Refugee Education Program at Jusoor, which is a nonprofit organization in Beirut. She leads the efforts to educate young Syrian refugee children, who are coming from war in their home country.
“It’s not the children’s fault this has happened,” she said. “The children, it’s not their fault.”
Tutunji spoke to the Church News about Jusoor’s relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She said the Church’s humanitarian funds have given Jusoor the ability to better the lives of 1,100 children right now.
Azima comes from the Arabic word for determination, said Tutunji. It is also the name of an online learning program Jusoor is piloting with the help of the Church to reach refugee students who are not able to physically come to school.
Azima’s roots come from Jusoor’s efforts during COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. When the schools were closed, teachers used WhatsApp to send lessons to their students in the camps. While most people did not have computers, some did have smartphones.
“With the help of the Church, we were able to buy around 96 to 100 mobile devices that we distributed to the families who needed them most,” said Tutunji. “With a little money left over we paid for the data.”
The students worked on paper or directly on the phone’s screen, and took pictures or screenshots of their work to send back to the teacher. Tutunji said up to 36 or 37 percent of students participated in the schooling, which was a high percentage of attendance compared to other organizations who were teaching online.
Back in-person after restrictions were lifted, Tutunji knew Jusoor could do something with what they had learned through the WhatsApp lessons. They especially wanted to reach refugee girls who were not coming to school for a variety of reasons — work, babysitting, distance or cultural concerns keep girls more than boys out of school.
So Azima was born. Jusoor trained three teachers and started reaching out to the camps to find students. “We have around 325 students on this program now. We had thought if we get 100 that’s good,” said Tutunji.
The girls are as young as age 8 and as old as age 21. They learn reading and writing, functional math, life skills, budgeting, socio-emotional skills and more all online through their mobile devices. The girls will soon have their third assessment, and when the project ends in July, Jusoor will write up a final report.
“This project is totally covered from A to Z by the Church, through the [Latter-day Saint] Charities,” said Tutunji.
The students who are able to attend in-person are also greatly benefiting from the Church’s humanitarian donations, which are used to procure educational supplies, purchase technology, and provide building maintenance, busing and food.
Tutunji said providing a healthy snack every day at school has been one of the most beneficial things for the children, who range from age 3 to age 12: “All the studies show if the children are hungry, there’s no way they can focus on work.”
Often, the snack is the only food the children have until going home for dinner. The first time the snacks were handed out, some of the children saved half of their portion to take home to a sibling. Tutunji said she gives extra food to any child who asks.
“It’s usually a sandwich and fruit or vegetable. Last week we brought a small pizza. They were on cloud nine,” she said.
The funds also allowed Jusoor to give a hamper of food to every child — lentils, rice, pasta, flour, oil and such. And the money allowed the organization to fix the building’s heater and set up bussing to bring students to school from their villages or camps.
Reclaiming their identity
Another key part of Jusoor’s efforts includes the Identity Program, which teaches the children about their roots in Syira. Tutunji said a few years ago, when they were asking the children where they were from, the children would respond with the name of the village where they were staying in Lebanon.
“So we started teaching them about Syria, the climate, the vegetation, how it is divided into counties, what is special about each area, the traditions and culture, and the diversity there,” said Tutunji.
Brett Macdonald, consultant manager for education and livelihoods with the Church’s humanitarian division, came up with flashcards and posters for the children to use. Each child got a small booklet called “My Unfinished Story.” The older children talk about where they came from, their village and customs, who their parents are, who their grandparents are, and they go back as far as they can.
“The idea is to help children and youth remember that they are part of something — that despite what they’ve lost and been separated from, they have connections and family stories they can carry with them wherever they may go,” Macdonald said.
Tutunji said the school works on it during an activity period once a week. After finishing with the project with the older students, they will focus on the younger students next, and how they can know more about who they are — and why they themselves as individuals are important.
“This was a huge contribution from the Church,” said Tutunji. And it fits right with the mission of Jusoor — developing Syria and helping youth realize their potential.