Trading Bullets for Books...and a Video Camera

Farah Mhanna is a Teach For Lebanon Fellow who teaches in a school located within the Nader Association, an orphanage with a mission to protect and educate children with serious social, economic, and emotional problems. Farah's students, a group of six 12-15 year olds, live at the orphanage, which provides them with shelter and care. Many of their parents and extended family members are routinely involved in armed conflict or were injured or killed by gunfire. Farah's relationship with her students began as a difficult one, but her determination to reach them and help them recognize their potential was unwavering. After gaining each other's trust, Farah and her students made a video about their lives and experiences. The following are her reflections on their journey together and the video they produced: 

I started my year trying to deal with disrespectful students. I faced insults, severe attitude, aggressive behavior—even harassment—and refusal to acknowledge my existence. My students come from an environment that doesn’t believe in the value of women. Thus, being a young female teacher was extremely challenging. It was very difficult to manage my class or to give a normal lesson.

Despite all of the difficulties, I was aware that my students were not fighting against me. They refused to accept education because they believed that weapons and fighting could resolve any problem, and that they were strong enough to defend themselves using violence. They were emotionally disturbed, and they needed my support.

I worked on building trust with my students, on making them feel that I cared for them. I tried to get closer to each student, to understand their needs and to get into their minds. I adjusted my lessons to fulfill their psychological needs, choosing subjects and examples they could relate to and that would have an impact on them.

I made an effort to focus on the most aggressive student in class, a leader who influenced his classmates’ behavior. I gained his trust and he eventually became my assistant. He helped me manage my class, which inspired the other students to grow closer to me, as they wanted to be my assistants too. Our relationships as a class began to improve.

Together, we worked on our core values. I led a school project to cover the playground walls with colorful paints. The paintings were related to our class values, and my students participated in the painting. It was then that they started to realize that I really care for their well-being. I followed the same strategy in all of our academic activities. I wanted them to feel in every single thing we did in class, how much I cared for them.

After six months, my relationship with my students had improved in a very positive way, and I decided to encourage them to start talking about their lives and the problems they were facing. I began to ask them about their personal lives, how they spent the weekend, who their friends were. Their preferred hobby was to fight and hold guns as, in their culture, it is a symbol of their manhood. Their higher objective was to work in arms’ trade. I learned that one of my students had been shot, and many of them have lost family members in the wars.  “My uncle died in war, I know I can’t find who killed him that’s why I want to kill everyone,” was a typical remark from one of my students.

I began holding discussions, almost every day, about the war—how and why they fight, and what they feel while fighting. After two months, my students began to recognize that the war was the cause of their sadness and their lack of interest in education. I encouraged them to see that they have skills other than holding guns and that there are options for a better future.

Since one of my hobbies is making movies, I decided to reflect my students’ experiences in a video.

Editor's Note: The children pictured in this video are not Farah's students, however all of her students have held or used guns and rifles.

I wanted to show everyone that our kids are not born for war—they are innocent, and they have the power to change what’s destroying their dreams. The school administration did not allow me to include photos of my students, so I collected some from the internet of local children holding guns—and was shocked when my students told me that the kids in the photographs were their friends and neighbors. The class came up with the idea of recording their voices. I helped them with the words, but everything was recorded after their approval. Together, we recorded the voices and adjusted the photos to the music. I showed the video to my students many times to let them see how powerful they are, and to tell them how proud I am of what they are promising to accomplish.

My students are part of my life now. Like a mother or sister, I hope these children stay safe wherever they go. I want them to live and enjoy their childhood. I want to see them in the future starting careers, getting married. and having families. Nothing is impossible, and I believe that my hopes and dreams for my students will come true one day!