For the past 4 years, the Lebanese State has not given any more subsidies to semi-free schools. Many teachers are no longer paid or are paid very little. If we add the devaluation of the pound, the salary of a teacher in Lebanon has dropped in one year from an average of $1200 to only $80. On top of this, many parents can no longer afford to pay for their children's schooling. The skyrocketing inflation has pushed schooling to the bottom of the priority list.
We see this daily when we visit needy families. Families, that only a few months ago were middle class, can no longer get by. Electricity bills have exploded, as have the prices of basic commodities (food, hygiene, etc.). Recently, a headmistress explained to us that out of the 180 children in her school, only 8 have paid their school fees for this new year.
To respond to this emergency, SOS Chrétiens d'Orient has launched a programme to finance the schooling of 8,000 pupils in 18 semi-formal schools run by nuns and religious. The donations will be used in priority to pay the teachers' additional salaries. Thus, not only will the children attend school, but their teachers will also live with dignity.
As a part of this programme, we set off on a Monday morning to Rmeich, a small Christian village in the south of Lebanon, located in the zone controlled by UNIFIL1 and Hezbollah. After three hours on a road punctuated by checkpoints, adorned, for several kilometres, with Hezbollah flags and on which we passed many UN vehicles, we arrived at the school of Our Lady of Lebanon, run by the Antonine sisters. They welcome more than 500 students, from kindergarten to high school.
The children start school again in two days, but the sisters' joy at finding their pupils again after two years of separation is overshadowed by material concerns. Long before Covid, the "thaoura" (revolution in French), which shook the country in October 2019, had forced many schools to close their doors because of blockades.
Over a plate of tabbouleh and hummus, sister Marie and sister Joséphine can't help but share their worries. They can no longer afford to buy the basic school supplies needed to run the classes. Papers, pencils, everything is missing and everything has become inaccessible. In spite of everything, they are fighting daily to find solutions and offer their pupils the start of the school year they deserve.
But the petrol crisis complicates the situation even more. In four months, the government has lifted subsidies and the price of petrol has quadrupled. In a region where students are scattered in the surrounding villages, many are unlikely to be able to travel to school. As the new school year begins, the Sisters fear that their classrooms will be half empty. And the same problem exists for the teachers. With their current salaries, they can only pay the equivalent of two full tanks per month.
With each problem, the sisters think of all the possible solutions. Sister Marie explains that she prays a lot, of course, but that they must not forget to roll up their sleeves and fight. To solve the transport problem, they have contacted neighbouring families to organise carpools. They have also contacted parishes to provide school buses.
Last year, when all the children were confined to their homes, they completely rethought the organisation of classes. In many families, there is only one computer or phone for online lessons. They therefore ensured that the classes at different levels did not overlap, and also adjusted the timing to the parents' availability. From 9 to 11 a.m. the younger children had their lessons, and then in the early afternoon, when the parents came home from work and were more available to help, the primary pupils were given the lessons.
They even did more. In Lebanon, the State, through EDL (Electricité Du Liban), only provides one to two hours of electricity per day. The rest is provided by generators run by private companies. Before the crisis, when fuel oil was available in quantity, there were hardly any blackouts. But today, even with a generator, the Lebanese have between 10 and 15 hours of electricity per day, for those who can afford to pay for this additional source of energy. How can virtual classes, which require battery power and wifi, be run in these conditions? The school team contacted the owners of generators in the region to anticipate the cut-off times and thus avoid, as much as possible, holding classes at that time.
They also followed up on the children they felt were dropping out or were in unfavourable conditions. What strength, what willpower emanates from these little women who put the children before everything else.
In the car on the way back, we talk to the head of mission about the testimony we have just heard. About their courage but also about the material distress in which the school finds itself today.
Three weeks later, we are back in the South. On the way, we stop at the home of Pierre Habib, a teacher at the school who runs a small bookshop, and buy school supplies for 80 children. As Sister Emmanuelle said, it is probably only a drop in the ocean, but if it were not there it would be missed.
We arrive at the school at lunchtime. The children eat wisely in class, dressed in their school blouses. Then finally comes the long-awaited recess. On the faces of the teachers and the sisters, we can read the joy of the children, the joy of being present, together, carefree.
Of course, not everything is rosy and the headmistress tells us about the new problems they are facing. After two years without school, the children find it difficult to concentrate and are sometimes aggressive. But as the Lebanese often tell us, "little by little the bird makes its nest".
It will take time of course to get used to each other again and always hope that the situation will improve or at least not get worse, that every day there will be enough gasoline so that Lebanese children will finally have the schooling they deserve. This is what the sisters of Rmeich are fighting for every day.
Support our schooling programme. With 60€, you finance the schooling of a Lebanese child for 6 months and give him/her the hope of a better future.
Agnès, volunteer in Lebanon.
1) UNITED NATIONS INTERIM FORCE IN LEBANON - UNIFIL was created in 1978 to monitor the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon. But regular clashes between Hezbollah and Israel on the border prompted the Security Council to extend its mandate.