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Schooling for ‘the Gypsies’ of Lebanon

Children’s rights groups working in Lebanon are calling attention to the situation of the ‘Dom’, since as many as two-thirds of children within this ethnic group may not attend school.

The Dom are often referred to as ‘the Gypsies of Lebanon’ because of their marginalisation within society. Also known as the ‘Nawwar’, an Arabic word which has connotations of laziness, begging, poor hygiene and uncertain morality, the Dom people regularly suffer discrimination from the wider community.

Living across a number of countries in the Middle East, including Lebanon, the Dom are descended from travelling performers who moved westwards hundreds of years ago from India. An accurate figure for their number in Lebanon is hard to know, but research suggests there are over 3,000 living in cities such as Beirut, Sidon, Tripoli and Tyre. Though a few Dom have regular jobs, most rely on begging, busking and fortune-telling in the streets or earning a living by playing music at celebrations. Some take on casual manual labour where it can be found.

Even though most no longer lead a nomadic lifestyle and have settled in one place, the Dom regularly face discrimination. According to the findings of a new report issued by two children’s rights groups working in the region – Insan Association and Terre des Hommes - Dom children are particularly vulnerable to violence from the wider community. Many also suffer from chronic malnutrition, since around a third of Dom people survive on less than a dollar a day (compared to less than ten per cent of Palestinian refugees living in Lebanon).

Director of Insan Association told the news agency IRIN, that the Dom’s “access to legal protection, health, education, adequate shelter and food is very difficult, verging on impossible”. Because of the Dom’s low status, Lebanese communities are often reluctant to provide services to Dom families, even though the group were granted naturalization rights in 1994.

More Dom families now want to enrol their children in schools. Some parents even try to ensure their children speak Arabic rather than Domari. Not using their native language is seen as one way of avoiding prejudice and removing an ethnic identity which leads to discrimination. Insan and Terre des Hommes are now calling for more to be done to ensure Dom children have access to education and no longer suffer from marginalisation and prejudice. They want the Dom people to be accepted into the ‘humanitarian landscape’ of Lebanon.

Laurinda Luffman signature