Temporary expo structure is repurposed as a school for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Their were over 70 pavilions exhibited at the 2015 Milan Expo. Most of them costing many millions of dollars, totaling over €13 billion.

Save the Children – Italy pavilion at the Expo.

Few of them having any enduring use or value after the Expo. This was ironic, since this showcase for advanced architectural practices had high-minded themes like “Energy for Life”, and “Better City, Better Life”.

But the Save the Children Italy pavilion was different. They required that their structures be reused for a charitable purpose after the exposition.

As is now common knowledge, the war in Syria has forced millions of people to migrate to neighbouring countries and has been stretching services and public infrastructure in the region. The Lebanese government does not have the capacity to provide education for this new population, which now represents almost one third of the total Lebanese population.

For this reason, creating an adequate, stimulating and stable learning environment is essential for supporting and promoting positive childhood development.

Together, Jusoor and Sawa for Development Aid responded to the lack of educational opportunities for the refugee population by building the Jarahieh School; a temporary tented school which provides education to approximately 320 children, aged 5-14, per year.

The school was established in 2014 and is located in the Jarahieh informal tented settlement. The school was built using a wooden structure and is covered in fabric – similar to those provided by UNHCR for shelters. Despite these huge achievements, the current school structure needs to be improved to enhance the educational environment and the quality of life for these children and their families. The school should not only be a place to learn skills, but also a psychological and emotional safe haven – a place for children to be happy.

At the moment, the ‘tent school’ has very poor lighting, issues with the temperature and sound levels, and a lack of any recreational space. The school also incurs unnecessary costs annually due to issues with ongoing maintenance.While far better than nothing, something far better was needed.

CatalyticAction, a non-profit design studio specializing in play and education spaces for refugees, took up that challenge by addressing the lack of educational facilities at Jarahieh refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. It’s home to some half a million displaced Syrian children. Half of them lack access to any education, but among the other half, in the past two years, 320 children aged 5 to 14 have been through the dark tent that was Jarahieh School.

To improve the conditions at this school, Save the Children Italy’s Milan Expo donation was dismantled, transported to Jarahieh and adapted by CatalyticAction, in collaboration with the children and locals, to turn the pavilion construction into a functional and sustainable educational and social facility.

Labouring alongside both Syrian and Lebanese workers for weeks allowed the CatalyticAction team to build close and trusting relationships. This trust made it easier to introduce alternative building strategies that may have otherwise been viewed sceptically by locals.

For example, the team sourced sheep’s wool from local farms to insulate the walls of the school. Natural wool acts as an excellent sound buffer between classrooms and is an extremely efficient thermal barrier. It is also completely sustainable and requires far less energy to produce than the equivalent human-made product. They hired local farmers to clean and prepare the wool for use, once again contributing to the local economy.

The process of adapting and reusing the Expo structures was itself a learning process that will help revitalize the future of these youth. The students that helped to shape the conceptual design had the opportunity to watch the school they imagined take form over weeks. These children are the future of their country – the ones who will one day return to Syria to rebuild the cities and towns destroyed by the war.

The new Jarahieh School provides bright, naturally lit classrooms, dedicated recreation spaces and a playful, stimulating environment for hundreds of young people who are forced to endure life in the harsh conditions of the refugee camp. But beyond the benefits of having a new school, these children will be equipped with the hope and the knowledge they need to one day create change that improves their lives, as well as the lives of others.

Currently, Jusoor is teaching the children: Arabic literacy; English; Maths; Science; Art; Sports. The goal is to prepare these children to successfully enroll in the Lebanese public school system – and this has now been achieved for over 400 children. The project recently won the 2017 LafargeHolcim Foundation Bronze Award.


Jusoor is an NGO of Syrian expatriates supporting the country’s development and helping Syrian youth realize their potential through programs in the fields of education, career development, and global community engagement.

Originally named Sawa4Syria, Sawa for Development Aid is the not-for-profit organisation that was founded as a reaction to the dire gap in fulfilling the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Image courtesy of CatalyticAction.

See CatalyticAction website.

See Save the Children Italy website.

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