American University of Beirut

Weathering the storm: AUB’s GHATA units provide shelter for refugees

​Jennifer Muller, Office of Communications,​​​

As winter storm Norma pummeled Lebanon with snow, rain, heavy wind, and freezing temperatures in early January, AUB's GHATA structures in refugee camps across the Beqaa Valley stood strong amid rampant flooding, providing shelter to families and allowing classes to continue against all odds. Designed by AUB and installed in various refugee camps across Lebanon, along with partners Kayany Foundation and Education Above All Foundation among others, the GHATA units provided a light of hope in this difficult time.

Built to withstand severe weather, these 20-square-meter units that serve as schoolrooms for refugee youth, remained dry and intact. A report by Bassem ​Mroue of the Associated Press about the storm's devastating effect on refugee camps was picked up by The New York Times, The Washington Post, ABC News, and other international news outlets. 

Reporting from the Bar Elias camp in the Beqaa Valley on the banks of the Litani River, which flooded during the storm, Mroue wrote: “The storm disrupted schooling for many refugees but amid the misery there was a success story: Some schools had units known as Ghata—Arabic for 'cover'—that weathered the storm." 

Inspired to bring about change​

The idea for the GHATA structures grew out of a previous destructive storm. In 2013, Alexa brought snow and freezing temperatures across the Levant and was devastating to the hundreds of thousands of refugees in Beqaa who had fled Syria in the early years of the crisis. At AUB, students working with the Center for Civic Engagement and Community Service (CCECS) gathered and distributed relief aid to these refugees and were confronted by the tragedy of their situation.

Inspired to create a more lasting impact, AUB students and CCECS developed the idea for a temporary unit that was low cost, easily assembled and disassembled, and able to withstand severe weather. After constructing and testing a prototype at AUB, students raised enough funds to install model units in three refugee camps to serve as a space for informal education.

Partnering with Kayany Foundation in 2014, CCECS set up the first temporary school in the Beqaa Valley after having been granted a decree from the Lebanese government for using the GHATA structures for educational purposes. Since then, over 200 GHATA units have been installed in numerous informal tented settlements to serve as community schools, serving over 4000 students.​

Scaling up

The CCECS project “GHATA: Bringing Education to Informal Tented Settlements" has attracted many partners and wide acclamation over the past five years. The initiative includes the construction of these portable classrooms as well as training qualified teams from the targeted communities to lead the educational process.

As the successes of the GHATA initiative multiplied, so have the partnerships. In addition to Kayany and Education Above All Foundations, AUB has been joined in its efforts by Reach Out to Asia, Kings College London, Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma, British Council, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, EU's Regional Trust Fund in Re​sponse to the Syria Crisis-Madad, Lebanese League of Women in Business, Ruwwad, Maastricht School of Management, NUFFIC, Living Peace Institute, and Al Maymouna. 

The impact of CCECS has been recognized around the world. In 2015, AUB was cited as the “most civically engaged university campus in the MENA region" by Ma'an Alliance. Other awards include the MacJannet Prize for Global Citizenship from Tufts University in 2016 and the South-by-Southwest Learn by Design Honorary Award in 2018. Most recently, CCECS received the Professor Fritz Redlich Human Rights Award for 2018 in recognition of the transformative GHATA project. 

Investing in youth

CCECS Director Rabih Shibli, who has led the GHATA project since its inception, notes that the primary concern of this initiative is not allowing these refugee youth to become a lost generation. Writing in An-Nahar newspaper, Shibli said, “The most difficult challenge to the returnees will be to rebuild Syria with its multiple sectors. Key to this building will be the preparation of human resources. This is at the heart of the curriculum developed by the Center; to enable a generation of young people capable of sustaining the future of Syria."

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