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“At school, Samer learned how to draw circles and shapes,” this is what 5-year-old Adam has to say about his brother, who is seven years older than him. Adam, for his part, spends his time “outside the house and on the street, running and playing,” as he puts it. His imagination fails to help him describe what school is like.
The mother of the two children, Arwa, tells Raseef22 that schools shutting down for two years and her being preoccupied with educating her eldest son, registered in the public elementary school in town, have prevented her from noticing that she needed to prepare Adam for school - the place that shapes the very first aspects of the future for any child.
Arwa, 34, works as a tailor. The day she gave birth to her youngest, she had been alone after the father walked out on the family. Despite her difficult circumstances, she made sure to reconcile her duties between securing the livelihood of her small family, helping Samer finish his homework and providing the proper care for young Adam.
The mother did not expect that the harsh conditions that were to come not long after would push her newborn to the fringes, in light of the tragic deterioration of the economic situation in Lebanon and in parallel with a health crisis that has shaken the world.
So, school, for Adam, is a place to teach ‘shapes’. “Do you want to go to school this year?” He shakes his head, in dismissal of the idea. It is not surprising that a child would prefer unrestricted playing on the street over the rows of “shapes” that Samer always seemed to describe to him.
Arwa comments, “If there is hope that schools will open this year, then we’ll cross that bridge.” Leaving her young son without starting his education or having him attend pre-school is heartbreaking for her. She expresses her great fear that the crises will drag out even longer and her son’s stay at home with her will too, thus preventing him from learning the required elementary educational skills.
A Despised Legacy
“I only reached the 9th grade, and with this level of education I have not been able to work in anything other than as a seamstress, and I am afraid that my children will not be able to reach this already limited level, if so, what will they do in the future?” This is what Arwa has to say regarding her fears that her children will inherit her very same fate and be forced to drop out of school or worse.
At the moment, economic conditions stand in the way of her two children attending school. “I cannot cover the expenses of private schools, and as for public school there is no information on when preschools will reopen,” she says.
Even if they reopen, Arwa along with others in her situation still have “the major problem of transportation to and from school.” Painfully aware of the mounting difficulties in her way, she finds herself feeling almost completely helpless, “I will not be able to send Samer and Adam to school.”
What, then? Should she replace that by teaching them a trade or profession? She answers this question with, “I haven’t even thought about it until today. Just coming to terms with the notion that they will not go to school anymore takes time. I am currently focusing on securing their basic needs on a daily basis, and if the collapse drags on, I will definitely think of alternatives, and teaching them a trade or profession will certainly be among the first of those choices.”
Mohammad, 53, shares with Arwa the fear that his sons will have the same fate he had. He’s the head of his family and works in a food hypermarket in Beirut. When he was in the sixth grade, he decided to follow the lead of his classmates who had “escaped” from school. He told Raseef22 that dropping out of school at that time was basically “tradition” and that reaching such a low level of education had been “sufficient” for his family and his surroundings.
“I later regretted it when I found out that I didn’t have employment options like most others did. There’s a sense of security that I have not felt since I lost my primary job as a chauffeur for a wealthy family,” he says.
When asked about the fate of his children’s education, he lets out a huge sigh accompanied by a wry smile and replies, “My salary roughly equals the price of three tanks of gasoline, so how can I secure the tuition of three children that costs an average of six million Lebanese pounds for each child?” These are the costs of enrolling in a good private school.
It pains him that his three children may experience a sense of insecurity if he couldn’t find another job or if the economic situation in the country does not improve. He counts their ages backwards: Sarah, 17 - Khalil, 15 - and Najwa, 13.
It is true that his children have passed the elementary grade level - which “used to be good enough back in our time”- “but the challenges they will face if they do not complete their education are much greater than the ones I had to face,” Mohammad says, point out how the latest requirements for living in present-day societies “start with university degrees”.
“What future awaits an eighth-grader?” he bitterly asks, noting that his frustration and his inability to envision a clear future has even “passed on” to his children. He gives an example of how his son Khalil stays asleep until noon and how he asks him every time what is the point of getting up early “if there is nothing for me to do.”
What about the option of work? “I still refuse to completely give in to the idea that they won’t get into school, and I have not yet accepted the idea of pushing them to work. I will wait for more transparency on public schools, which will serve as a suitable alternative that’s much easier than facing the reality of quitting school altogether."
Stripping an Individual of his Worth Outside the Education System
Adam is at risk of becoming a school dropout at a younger age than both Arwa and Mohammad were when they dropped out. He is at risk of growing up with complete illiteracy. When asked about his daily activities, the little boy laughs and then recalls “playing on the street”. When asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the question prompts him to ponder for a while and ends up unanswered. Adam having difficulty finding an answer regarding his future is tied to his limited imagination of seeing school as a place that paves the way for his individual and personal development.
Sociology researcher and head of the media department in the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS) at the Lebanese University, Dr. Layla Shamseddin, tells Raseef22 that “school and education are closely related to the formation of identity and employment in any society that does not recognize individuals who do not have school certificates.” Within this context, she indicates the risk of children who are deprived of elementary education being marginalized in their surroundings and environment. In other words, a child in our society does not begin to imagine his professional future before entering school, which is the only place in the eyes of society that can prepare him for a profession.
The situation Adam is in is like that of many children in Lebanon who fall into the first cycles of basic education. According to the Coordinator of Joint Academic Departments at the the Center for Educational Research and Development (CERD - “a national institution concerned with educational modernization and development through the development of educational planning and policies”), Rana Abdallah, “these are the most affected, and the dropout rate in their category has always been the largest. The crisis of children dropping out at this age has worsened after schools closed down due to the Coronavirus.”
“I only reached 9th grade, and with this level of education I could only work as a seamstress. I am afraid that my children will not be able to even reach this limited level. What will their future look like?”
To date, there is no official national study in Lebanon that details the reality of school dropouts there. Abdallah reports that CERD had been working on one such study, “but the circumstances that Covid brought about have prevented its completion,” adding to Raseef22 that the center is “currently in the process of resuming their work on it.”
According to estimates provided by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) office in Lebanon to Raseef22, the closure of schools due to the Covid pandemic that coincided with the country’s great economic collapse, has disrupted the learning of more than 1.2 million children of school age (aged from 3 to 18 years old).
In the organization’s view, they are at risk of losing the opportunity for quality and comprehensive learning for the third year in a row unless urgent measures are taken to reopen schools for face-to-face learning. UNICEF figures indicate that about 700 thousand children (more than 443 thousand Syrian children and 265 thousand Lebanese children) are currently out of school and suffer from obstacles that limit their ability to access opportunities for comprehensive and quality education.
As Lebanon descends further to the bottom of economic collapse day after day, this critical educational reality is only the first of many more crises that the country is facing. Perhaps the most notable symptom indicating the extent of this predicament is the reluctance of many resident Lebanese families towards enrolling their children. Many are “withdrawing” their children from their schools due to the collapse of their incomes and the destruction of their purchasing power due to the ongoing inflation.
On the other hand, many prefer to transfer their children into public schools as an alternative option. Education reporter Faten al-Hajj points out that the crisis has caused a significant exodus from the private sector to the public sector, with estimates indicating that about 90 thousand students have moved from private schools to public schools. In her opinion, this displacement would likely increase pressure on public schools and thus affect their intake capacity.
What’s striking is what al-Hajj refers to in terms of the ambiguity of being able to know the extent of the capacity of schools to accommodate. “During the past two years, we have not been able to test the absorptive capacity of schools. So we have to wait for registration while the decision of the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) [a body of teachers’ unions and associations in the public and private sectors as well as the Association of Public Administration Employees (LEPAL) in Lebanon] to suspend the school year due to [the devaluation of] the salaries of teachers could disrupt the academic year,” she tells Raseef22.
Al-Hajj starts out from the lack of clarity in the plan of the Education Ministry to receive such immense numbers of applicants to public schools. The journalist then goes on to recall the dangers of depriving hundreds of students of opportunities in education, “just like what happened last year, when many families were unable to reserve places and seats for their children, which forced them to learn from home.”
From here, al-Hajj believes that “school dropouts will certainly increase, because hundreds of students will be without places to study.”
Child Dropouts... A Lucrative Catch
In 2013, the Union Coordination Committee (UCC) and the Association for Basic Education in Public Schools raised the issue of child labor. At that time, a “workshop combating Child Labor” was held, and the head of the association, Mahmoud Ayoub, warned in a statement that “the phenomenon of child labor is on the rise in Lebanon”, linking it to “the growing number of Lebanese people living below the extreme poverty line.” Between 2013 and today, the number of those living below extreme poverty has at least doubled.
Ayoub also pointed out that “child labor in turn contributes to the persistence of poverty. Early entry into the labor market reduces the lifelong income level by between 13% and 20%.”
The workshop concluded with several recommendations, including a demand of the Lebanese government to implement Law No. 686 dated 16/3/1998 and its amendments for the year of 2011, which stipulates that education is compulsory and free through issuing the necessary implementation decrees to put it into effect.
“I don't get the respect an educated woman has. I'm often faced with attempts to simplify discussions related to society, politics, or health due to the prejudgment that, once alone, I must repeat the information to understand”
At this, al-Hajj refers to those she calls “persons lacking education”, or students who have lost the advantages they would usually acquire during the school year. She points out that with the increase in the percentage of persons lacking education, the educational inequalities will increase, and this “would also lead to dropouts”. When asked how, she replies, “When there is an educational gap or divide, a student inevitably becomes unable to catch up with his classmates, which leads him to opt to leave school, since he will feel that he cannot put the skills his generation acquired into practice, from reading and acquiring knowledge to technological techniques.”
This is proven by the testimonies of a number of teachers who were tasked with teaching Syrian refugees in public schools during assigned afternoon classes.
Zahraa, a 29-year-old female teacher contracted to teach refugees, tells Raseef22 that a large number of Syrian children “have clearly expressed early on - either directly, or through their parents - their desire to drop out because they could not assimilate on the same level as their classmates because they were in public schools and their circumstances dictated that they transfer to other schools that require the use of different techniques of higher standards.”
A number of volunteer groups worked to address this issue in an attempt to stop it, “Some of us were successful and some of us were not able to stop the children from dropping out,” Zahraa adds. For instance, many refugee children did not have the financial ability to pay for the internet needed to follow lessons through apps other than WhatsApp, in addition to the fact that the use of other technologies and techniques is supposed to be established by school administrations, “which is not what happened in many public schools that refugees go to amid the disorder and absence of the necessary resources,” according to Zahraa.
According to figures provided by UNICEF to Raseef22, multiple crises in Lebanon have pushed the most vulnerable children out of education. According to the Child Focused Rapid Assessments (CFRA) conducted by UNICEF in April 2021, 9% of families have sent their children to work and 15% have halted their children’s education. Whereas the situation is much worse for Syrian families, with rates reaching 22% and 35% respectively, bearing in mind that the cases of school dropouts recorded among refugees are caused by other factors, the most notable of which is harassment due to racial discrimination.
Dropouts Because of Racism... Marginalization On Marginalization
In a voice filled with sorrow, Thimar, a 12-year-old Syrian refugee living in a camp on the outskirts of Tyre, says she hasn’t been to school for “many years”. As for the reason, it was because of “the problems that were happening there.”
She remembers that she was in the second grade when her parents got angry in the middle of the 2017-2018 school year and decided to “withdraw her”, in protest of the constant beatings she and her little brother were being subjected to by the other kids.
Her mother, Nahla, 34, tells Raseef22 that she and her husband could no longer bear the sight of the bruises and the psychological trauma caused by the Lebanese children’s racist practices and harassment of her children. “We were very outraged and wanted to protect our children, so we prevented them from going back to the school after the administration did not lift a finger to stop this abusive situation our children were in.”
The mother says she tried to file complaints on many occasions, “but we were the weakest link every time.” It saddens her when she notices the amount of enthusiasm that Thimar displays every time the idea of going back to school is brought up, “and I am even sadder when I remember that her 7-year-old brother doesn’t yet know how to read or write.”
Nahla does not know how to read or write either because she did not go to school, so she is aware of the importance of education “better than anyone else”.
Thimar says she will never stop trying to persuade her father to revoke his “protest” decision, “I love school because I want to become a ‘miss’ (teacher), and teach children, carry books, read numbers and letters.”
“What do you do during the day for the time being?” She answers, “I clean the house with my mother and sometimes watch the children playing in the street.” “What do you wish for?” “That my dad would change his mind and make me go back to school,” she says with a smile.
Her mother comments that her father “cannot stand her being harassed and wants to protect her from these racist practices.” She goes on to say, “But it doesn't mean that he completely refuses the idea of her going to school. Following several attempts at persuading him, he is now saying that he’s ready to send her back to school whenever the right conditions present themselves. But nobody knows when those conditions will come. We will wait.”
Usually, a child does not realize the importance of school and doesn’t eagerly speak of it since it is tied to duty and obligation. However, “being deprived of this opportunity allows the child to reflect on its advantages on the one hand and compare it with his bitter reality on the other,” says Shamseddin.
Accordingly, Thimar’s strong attachment to school is linked to her dissatisfaction with the reality of her “reclusion” at home, seeing her mother’s past being repeated with her, and the stereotyped role she was condemned to play. Simply put, Thimar wants to see a different future for herself.
Far from Economics... The Standards of Society Require Degrees
“It is painful to find yourself realizing that you are unable to save your future from inevitable misery,” says Hanan, 29. Hanan dropped out of school at the age of 13 due to her family’s economic conditions. She now works in a hairdressing “salon” for women, and despite that, “it is not about your ability to earn an income, even if this is what usually concerns many people,” she tells Raseef22, adding, “It is, first and foremost, about the point of view that’s directed at an individual in his surroundings and the difference he makes.”
Hanan is a young working woman, and her dropping out from school did not prevent her from learning a profession. Despite this, she is constantly hounded by social prejudices, “I receive a higher salary than my husband who works in the ISF (Internal Security Forces) does, and yet I do not have the respect that an educated woman receives. I am often faced with attempts by my surroundings to simplify any discussion related to society, politics, medicine or health as a result of the prejudgment that I alone need to repeat information, as if I am suffering from some particular inadequacy.”
Hanan continues, “Well, they are right in that I missed a lot, but this does not justify me accepting their judgments over me needing to repeat the conversation or limit the topics to the obvious areas of life.” Based on her experience, Hanan sees that lacking an academic degree means that a person has become “invisible” even if he “makes double the effort to get his surroundings to recognize him.”
Hanan’s words are consistent with what Shamseddin says regarding the growing feeling among school dropouts that they are marginalized and “unrecognized”, referring to numerous studies that have examined school-based marginalization, which creates a feeling of injustice and inferiority for many individuals, especially in societies where the illiteracy rate is low and the jobs there are based on academic degrees and qualifications.
Further Marginalization Against the Disabled
Among the children who are also classified as the most vulnerable are the disabled students. They are the ones more likely than others of being deprived of their right to an education due to the absence of multiple options for specialized schools on the one hand, and on the other hand as a result of the crisis exacerbating the “original” problems they had been suffering from in the educational sector - such as providing the necessary human cadres and capabilities that cover the costs of an educational process for special cases.
For six years, Samia, 43, struggled to secure a place for her disabled child, Jad, in an educational institution for the disabled. Samia takes care of Jad, 12, on her own after she got divorced and her ex-husband remarried. The single mother says that it took her tremendous effort “between visits to the Ministry of Social Affairs and correspondence with the only school in our region that receives cases like my son’s,” in order to secure an opportunity for his education.
These “strenuous” and cumulative efforts, according to her, “went down the drain with the school closing due to the impact of the economic crisis, while the Ministry of Social Affairs also stopped giving us the required allowance so that we could secure an alternative.”
The institutions and associations concerned with educating those with special needs in Lebanon are facing many challenges that may have doubled due to the rise in the costs to secure educational staff and the necessary supplies and equipment. This prompted many of these institutions to make an early decision to close due to the worsening economic situation. The closing down of the Al-Kafaàt Foundation, a specialized school for autistic children, in early September 2021 is only one example that reflects the reality of the tragic situation that awaits special needs students.
Amid the ambiguous efforts of decision-makers to pay attention to marginalized groups, including children with disabilities, Samia finds herself facing many threats, most prominently her son losing all the educational skills he had acquired “over a long and intense period of time”. She points out that she had to search on the Internet for educational courses, “so that I could undertake his education myself, despite how difficult and almost impossible the matter may be. However, these are the only means I have to stop the deterioration of my child’s level of education.”
Samia does not explicitly address the issue of her son’s “recognition” in society. But she keeps linking school with introducing him to society. For the mother of a child with paraplegia and autism, school is the “window” through which he can see beyond his room where he usually spends most of his time.
“He built a good relationship with the building janitor, who used to help me carry him to the car. He had started to communicate with his specialist teachers, and his mood had improved because the school provided him with a private space where he was able to express himself through exercises,” she tells Raseef22.
For Samia, missing school means her son has lost all of these opportunities and means “going back to point zero where my son lives between walls and does not have a chance to express himself.”
The mother concludes with, “I lost the opportunity to secure a place for my son in a society that does not even see my son in the first place. The school was a tool that helped me hold on to hope and believe in better choices.”
A Solid Foundation for a Society Based on Marginalization
“We are not only depriving children of school. We are increasing the number of marginalized people in the future who will not be able to get past their complex of being unequal with their peers when it comes to living, employment and rights.” With these words, Shamseddin summarizes the impact of school dropouts, which will get worse in Lebanon due to the crisis.
While it is clear from the foregoing that the marginalization of school dropouts is not only limited to their skills, but also more than that it’s linked to society’s expectations over the profession that deserves respect and the level of education that allows a person to become “visibly seen” and heard, the fact remains that being denied access to school as a basic right is a direct result of the state’s educational policies.
The education crisis in Lebanon is a “structural” crisis, according to Faten al-Hajj, who adds that “there is no schooling or education in any country in the world that is purely based on aid from donors,” noting that the first and last responsibility rests with the state, “because aid inevitably will not be sufficient to remedy the current crisis.”