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Getting Children in Lebanon Back to School Amongst Multiple Crises

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By Maria Aoun

BEIRUT, Lebanon, Dec 15 2020 (IPS) - Education and health care were high on the agenda when the United Nations vowed to work toward a better future by setting 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be met by 2030.

The global COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with harsh socio-economic challenges over the past few years, have led to several countries being off track to meet the SDGs. Lebanon is one such country: Lebanon hosts the largest proportion of refugees per capita of the local population in the world, and since 1948, it has been home to a large Palestine refugee community. Since 2011, it has seen more than one million Syrians – many of them children – cross the border into an already over-stretched and under-funded society with pre-existing and continuing education challenges for refugee, host-community and Lebanese children. Most of these refugees live in harsh conditions with children having limited or no access to education whatsoever. According to a 2018 assessment conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 58% of refugees between the ages of 5 to 18 were out of school and living in extreme poverty.

Unabated political conflicts along with an escalation in corruption in late 2019, combined with forced pandemic lockdown in 2020, the Lebanese currency devalued by 80% devaluation. Soon enough, school tuitions became unaffordable with 55% of the Lebanese population living under the poverty line according to the Economic and Social Commission for West Asia (ESCWA). Additionally, the pandemic forced the shifting of in-class school lessons to online classes; yet, many students did not have access to appropriate educational materials nor internet connections to follow through with their regular studies.

These hurdles to achieving progress towards SDG 4 (inclusive and equitable quality education for all), worsened after the devastating Beirut blast in August 2020, that devastated almost the entire city, causing the mass destruction of at least 163 schools in the capital of Lebanon. Over 85 thousand students were affected as a result, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The country has received substantial external aid to help rebuild Beirut and bring it back on its feet. Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the global fund for education in emergencies and protracted crises, which is helping transform the delivery of education in emergencies, in close coordination with UNESCO Beirut and the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education, quickly provided US$1.5 million as a first emergency response to rehabilitate 40 heavily damaged schools in Beirut and to provide new school equipment for 94 public schools to replace those damaged in the blast.

This came on the heels of an initial grant by ECW for education in Lebanon that ran for a year and half from August 2018 to help refugee and host community children’s access to quality education. The Director of ECW, Yasmine Sherif was on the ground in Lebanon over the past week, along with a team of experts, to meet government, UN and civil society partners in Lebanon and to assess first-hand and strategize the roll-out of a new multi-year education resilience programme, especially as COVID-19 challenges continue.

IPS sat down with Yasmine Sherif and the ECW team including Nasser Faqih, Chief of Strategic Partnerships and Maarten Barends, Chief of Humanitarian Liaison, to discuss the current state of children and education in Lebanon and what their mission to the country has discovered so far.

IPS: What do you see as most lacking at the moment for Lebanese students, especially after the multiple disasters for Lebanon in 2020?

Sherif: The biggest barrier to deliver quality and inclusive education to marginalized and crisis-affected Lebanese children and they are many, Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees, and anyone else who is marginalized, is financial resources. Lebanon is facing the severe impact of multiple crises on the lives and education of the country’s children and youth – socio-economic challenges, COVID-19, a large refugee population, and most recently, the devastating Beirut explosion. This is why I urgently appeal for additional funding to support these children. We must all invest in education in Lebanon today; if not now, it may soon be too late. I am calling on public and private sector donors around the world to support Lebanon’s education system with the fierce urgency of now.

IPS: While funds have been allocated to the rehabilitation of damaged schools and to deal with COVID-19, what is a sustainable plan for Lebanese students in terms of access to quality education for the years to come?

Faqih: Because of the crisis that happened with Syrian refugees there has been a lot of pressure on the public [schooling] system and there has also been a challenge in the quality of education in English language of instruction schools and francophone schools. Now with the economic crisis, many Lebanese children are shifting away from private education back to public education, so this putting more pressure on the public education system and it needs urgent funding support. To achieve long-term changes, I think eventually we need to look at the quality of education in terms of curriculum; enhancing the capacity of teachers; and, ensuring that Universal Education, which has always been the motto in Lebanon, is continued and public schools retake their place again.

IPS: What did you see in terms of school lessons taking place in the face of COVID-19 challenges and measures?

Sherif: Due to the pandemic lockdowns, much of the learning now is done online, through remote learning, often via Smartphone. But if you only have one Smartphone in the family but several children, it obviously impacts access to learning. But people in Lebanon are resilient and they know the importance of education for their children. I was inspired by those who, even if there are four children in a family, that Smartphone is being shared between all. Yesterday in the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) camp they showed us how they abide by the blended approach [hybrid system] which is applied all over Lebanon now. It’s a double shift of dividing the students in half, one week one group comes to school with social distancing and the other week[it’s] the other group’s turn.

Sherif told IPS that the main purpose of the team being in Lebanon was to review the education crises the country is facing and to advocate globally for more funds to facilitate access to education for all. She especially emphasized the importance of creating education opportunities for marginalized communities and refugees during the global pandemic. ECW is now working in close collaboration with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education on a multi-year education resilience program for the next three years in Lebanon.

During their visit, the ECW team met with multiple Lebanese organizations to layout plans to execute the new multi-year resilience program investment to support the education of refugees, host-communities and Lebanese children. ECW has already invested $6 million and is planning an additional $11 million in 2021, for a total of least $17 million. The multi-year program focuses on capacity and access to education, amongst other factors and is renewable every three years. Sherif explained that long term commitment to education is only possible if governments take “concessional loans with a very low interest rate” and reiterated that ”grants alone will not help Lebanon get its education system back”. Sherif told IPS that if the world recognized the several different crises being experienced right now by Lebanon and stood in solidarity by increasing financial aid to its educational sector, Lebanon could still achieve SDG4 by the year 2030. “It is simply a matter of taking action now,” she emphasized.

One other active partner on the ground, Jennifer Moorehead, Country Director of Save the Children told IPS that they are providing each child with a learning kit including basic stationary, learning aids, etc., as well as mobile data recharge cards so that children are able to engage in activities through online support. This learning kit is crucial, given the difficult socio-economic situation of many families.

During her six-day mission in the country, Sherif met with: Lebanon government representatives, including the Minister of Education and Higher Education; the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator; UN agencies, including UNRWA, UNESCO, UNICEF and UNHCR; civil society and bilateral partners, including Save the Children, AVSI, NRC, IRC and World Vision; and in-country donors.