Mohammad al-Jundi: the Syrian boy who opened a school for refugees
Mohammad al-Jundi was 12 years old in 2013 when his family fled from the bombs that were dropping near their home in Syria. At the time, al-Jundi didn’t know that he would soon find a calling bringing education to fellow refugees.
As a young child growing up in the countryside close to Hama, Syria, Mohammad al-Jundi never imagined that his story would one day be known around the world. Now, at the age of 17, he has already won two prestigious, international awards – the MTV EMA Generation Award and the International Children’s Peace Prize, given to him by Pakistani education icon Malala Yousafzai – for his work opening a school for fellow refugee children in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Between Hama and Aley
Al-Jundi’s story begins in 2013 amid the tragedy of war. As bombs fell around their home, al-Jundi and his sister and parents were forced to flee. After crossing the border into Lebanon, they settled in the mountain town of Aley. "It was not the best experience," al-Jundi told L'Orient-Le Jour (OLJ) via Skype. “My parents are not poor. They are rather well off, but our financial situation quickly deteriorated at the time. It was a difficult phase. In Lebanon, I could not continue my studies. No school agreed to take me in the middle of the school year, and those near the house were either too expensive or French-speaking.”
Other children may have been happy for the break from school, but al-Jundi was not content to sit around idly. Instead, he decided to take photography classes. "I wanted to keep myself busy, do something useful," he said. “In Dar al-Mussawir in Beirut, I was given a camera. In parallel, they had a plan to distribute 500 cameras to 500 refugees in camps, and that's how I entered this world."
One day while he was in the Bekaa, al-Jundi had an idea: Why not create a place for children like him to get an education?
Al-Jundi was 13 years old at the time. In the beginning, people didn’t take him seriously, but his parents were supportive and helped him get started. “We first recruited some volunteers to teach, along with my mother who is a math teacher, my uncle, my sister and myself,” he recalled. “We started with only four rooms, and things were not very organized at first. With the number of students growing, more than 150, we had to manage. Even the pupils' parents took lessons because some did not even know how to read or write. In our school, everyone learns according to their level."
Al-Jundi’s parents decided to move to the Bekaa with him to work together on the new project. "The school and the informal camp were later destroyed," al-Jundi said. “So we relocated and found another building to use in the region of el-Marj, also in the Bekaa.”
The project has since grown. The new school now serves around 200 refugees and offers a variety of subjects in both morning and evening sessions. Some of the children who reach a high enough level are able to enter public schools. “English is taught as well,” al-Jundi says. “I am also trying to recruit volunteers to teach theater and music. It is important!”
In 2017, a local NGO noticed al-Jundi’s project and presented it to the KidsRights Foundation, which gave him his first award. Since then, KidsRights has continued to fund that project, and other contributors have pitched in as well.
A new life in Sweden
On Nov. 4th last year, the international television channel MTV selected al-Jundi to receive one of the EMA Generation Award at its inaugural ceremony. The award aims to recognize the work of people under the age of 26 who are working to change the world. Al-Jundi was one of five recipients and relished the opportunity to raise the profile of his work. "I have become a little known in Europe,” he told OLJ. “And it helps me to considerably develop my projects and let the voices of those I try to help be heard.”
Ten months ago, al-Jundi relocated to Sweden where his father has lived since 2014. Now, he is studying to finish high school and plans to enter university where he’s thinking of studying international relations. By the time al-Jundi enrolled in school in Sweden, it had been six years since he had studied in an official school.
But even while he is now focusing on his own education, he hasn’t forgotten about the project he started. "I believe in the importance of education and university degrees,” he said. "[But] I also continue to work for our school in Lebanon, where my mother stayed. I collect funds and make as many contacts as I can to ensure the survival of the project until the end of the war.”
Al-Jundi is not planning on going back to Syria – at least not yet. “Even if I wanted to, I would not come back now,” he said. “I do not want all these years without studying to be lost. Since I have already left the country, I would like to take advantage of it and get stronger before going back home.”
"My experiences has [sic] changed me a lot, truly. But I do not feel more mature, or better, than others,” he continued. “I just know that I had an unusual childhood. As a result, my priorities changed, but I am still happy now. Since I did not find anyone to help me, I would like to be that person who helps others – the one I have long been waiting for”.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 7th of December 2018)