Published on Arab Voices

Piles of garbage, blackouts, water shortages welcome students back to school

John Donelly / World BankA dismal garbage disposal crisis, long, unregulated power cuts and water shortages, coupled with deepening financial hardship, have exposed a ruling political class as being too busy squabbling in their own, narrow self-interest to worry about the pressing needs of Lebanon’s other citizens.

In despair, citizens have taken to the streets in protests to demand their basic rights—a myriad of social, political and financial suffering, topped by mounds of garbage. The protests have all but overshadowed another imminent crisis as the end of September’s “back to school” season looms, and the impact of about 1.5 million refugees—a third of them children and adolescents—poses yet another challenge.

The political paralysis in Lebanon has resulted in unprecedented levels of disgrace: the country has been without a president for 15 months, parliament has chosen to unconstitutionally extend its own mandate, and the Council of Ministers is at the peak of deadlock, making it even more difficult, if not impossible, to address any of the grievances voiced in the streets and the challenges emanating from the influx of Syrian refugees.

Syrian schoolchildren is only one facet of the “biggest humanitarian emergency of the era.” Well into its fifth year, the war in Syria has defied local and international solutions, and aid fatigue in the international community is exacerbating the suffering of the Syrian people.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that around 400,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon are of school age. An estimated 50% of those are without any form of education. This bitter reality gave way to the resurgence of Ernest Hemingway’s “lost generation” expression, now adapted to depict the suffering of the Syrian children.

A surplus of barriers impede this lost generation’s enrollment in any form of education, ranging from divergence in the Lebanese and Syrian curricula, to high transportation costs to schools and safety concerns. A significant number of Syrian students are facing major difficulties catching up, and are struggling to integrate having missed several years of schooling. Adolescents, in particular, are under pressure to financially support their vulnerable families— thus the high dropout rates among Syrian students. As the number of out-of-school children increases, alarm bells of violence, extremism, early marriages, and child labor ring out.

If sheer numbers are any indication of the gravity of the crisis, the number of Syrian students in need of schooling is 25% more than the 300,000 Lebanese students enrolled in public schools. Naturally, the strained Lebanese public school system is facing major funding and capacity constraints to accommodate the surge in student enrollment.

In 2014, Lebanon’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE)—in partnership with international organizations, international donors, and international NGOs—launched the Reaching all Children with Education (RACE) Initiative to mobilize resources and improve the capacity of the Lebanese public school system to accommodate higher enrollment.

The Ministry introduced a double shift system, with the afternoon (or second) teaching shift of the day exclusively targeted Syrian refugee students. In the past academic year, a total of 106,000 Syrian children were enrolled in public schools in either the first or second shift. Close to 90,000 students were supported by Accelerated Learning Programmes (ALPs) and other non-formal education programs primarily led by international NGOs and education partners. Going forward this academic year, subject to the availability of funding, the target is to reach 200,000 refugee children with formal education (for schooling during the first and second shifts), in addition to those to be reached by informal education programs.  

For its part, the World Bank is committed to helping MEHE and education partners to extend quality access to education to more children in Lebanese public schools. In addition to being a partner in the RACE initiative, the World Bank has prepared a US$32 million grant-financed Emergency Education System Stabilization project, funded from the Lebanon Syria Conflict Trust Fund to support the stabilization of the Lebanese public education system in the face of the current crisis.

The World Bank has also provided the Ministry with technical assistance to analyze the impact of the crisis on the education budget, determining the per student costs of enrolling additional children in public schools, and finally identifying the financing gaps to reach the target number of Syrian students with formal education in the coming academic year. Given the magnitude of the emergency at hand, the Bank, in collaboration with MEHE and other partners, is exerting an unprecedented effort to lobby countries and aid agencies to rise to the challenge of taking their share of responsibility for financing Syrian refugee students in Lebanese public schools.

The education crisis is far from over. As donor funding is reduced every year, the naturally unsteady bridge towards a more promising future for all Syrian children is collapsing. The epitome of humiliation is when education becomes a luxury and not a definitive right. In the face of extremism and barrel bombs, education is the loudest weapon.

The Syrian refugee crisis is most prominent on Lebanese soil, but the responsibility for the impact of it is up to the Arab and international community as a whole. Syrian children are in dire need of means to rebuild their future. Let’s be advocates of their rights and not enablers of a bleak destiny.


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