6 December 2021 - Lebanon

Food, heat or education?: Exorbitant school costs leave families in Lebanon with an impossible choice

Amal*, 13, (right) and Lena*, 11, Tripoli, Lebanon.ooo ok cool

Sisters Amal* and Lena* are Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. They have been out of school for more than two years. Their family is suffering financially and their situation is becoming increasingly difficult with the economic crisis in Lebanon. 

Lebanon’s economic crisis, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has left thousands of families with the difficult choice of how to spend what little income they have - and children’s education is taking a hit in favour of other essentials such as food and fuel for heating. 

“Everything is expensive in Lebanon. I can’t afford to buy my children stationery, which now costs over 300,000 Lebanese pounds (USD $200). We’re barely eating a proper meal, so we can’t exactly splurge on buying a pencil,” said Farah*, a mother of four who is among the four million newly impoverished families as a result of the country’s economic meltdown – one of the world’s worst since the 1850s.

As temperatures begin to drop and daily expenses increase, Save the Children’s helpline has received a sharp increase in phone calls from parents requesting support for their children to attend class since public schools began to reopen across Lebanon. Calls to the helpline increased by 150% in November when compared to September this year. 

“I feel like we’re tiptoeing on a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m happy and relieved schools are opening so my children can attend as online education has been out of reach for us [due to the electricity shortages],” said Farah*. “On the other hand, we’re barely scraping by as schools, even public ones, come with a load of financial requirements that we can no longer afford”

As the economic crisis worsens, thousands of families are pulling their children out of private schools and into the state system, putting pressure on the already stretched system. Many schools lack proper heating, meaning that temperatures can drop to freezing levels, especially in schools at higher elevations. The helpline has received the highest number of requests for school transportation support this year as winter quickly approaches and many children are walking to school in cold, wet conditions.

“With the increase in the cost of fuel, my children are now forced to walk to school. If this had been during the summer, that would be fine, but with winter conditions and our disastrous financial situation, I’m terrified of them walking to school when it’s cold and raining,” said Farah*.

The education system across Lebanon was already weak before the COVID-19 pandemic, with only 52% of primary school children continuing into secondary school. The pandemic has worsened the education crisis, especially for refugee children who have limited access to both formal education and online learning.

Refugee children are often out of school because of extreme poverty, inability to afford transport costs, lack of remedial classes, bullying and discrimination. To attempt to combat these problems, the government of Lebanon is enrolling refugees in public schools based on a two-shift system, with an afternoon shift specifically for refugee and non-Lebanese children. However, with many public schools overwhelmed, refugees are being moved to a later shift or dropping out altogether.

“My children have never set foot in school. When I tried to register my son in a second shift school, or at any public school, they all told me to wait till he’s 6 years and above. When I tried to register him this year, they all turned me down explaining the priority is for previous students and that there’s no space for new students,” said Ghalia*, a Syrian mother of three living in Beirut.

She explained that she is unable to register her children in private school as they barely have enough money for bread.

“My 7-month-old baby hasn’t had milk in over four months, how can I afford tuition? If I could afford it, I wouldn’t think twice about registering my son,” said Ghalia*. “When he sees other children in our neighbourhood wearing their backpacks and uniforms in the morning, he starts to cry, asking me why he can’t be like them. At first, I would tell him soon; now, I can’t say anything and he knows that because he stopped asking me while watching them.” More than 737,000 children in Lebanon are not in class this academic year, and 30% of Syrian refugee children have never been to school, putting their well-being and futures at risk.

Jennifer Moorehead, Save the Children’s Country Director in Lebanon said:

“As the pandemic continues to hit families’ finances, many children may never return to school and some families will turn to child marriage and child labour to try to ease their economic difficulties.

“As winter conditions set in, many families will not afford fuel to keep warm while also paying to send their children to school. Online learning is out of reach for many children, as Lebanon is experiencing power outages lasting up to 22 hours a day.

“Education in the country is now at a tipping point. Urgent action must be taken to ensure all children can safely return to school and have opportunities to learn.”

Save the Children is warning that the poorest and most marginalised children in Lebanon are at risk of not returning to the classroom, putting their futures in jeopardy. The organisation is calling for increased funding to build back a better, more resilient education system in Lebanon, and to ensure that children who are not currently part of Lebanon’s formal education system—especially refugee children—are included in plans to resume learning.

The Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) has recently developed a five-year Education Plan aiming to ensure that all children in Lebanon – regardless of nationality – have access to quality education. Increased support from the international donor community is urgently needed to support the reopening of public schools and minimise the economic burden on both schools and families.

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