Lebanese schools threatened with closure hold out hope for French support

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - One of the handful of historic buildings in downtown Beirut to have survived the 1975-1990 civil war, the school of Saint Anne of Besançon, may not open again in September. A quarter of its usual 800 students have not enrolled yet.

“We keep changing scenarios to adapt to the situation. We are living day by day” said its director, Sister Myrna Farah.

Compounded by confinement measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus, Lebanon’s worst-ever economic crisis threatens the survival of the country’s private schools, where 70 per cent of Lebanese children study.

With the government increasingly struggling to provide basic services such as electricity, Lebanese schools, and particularly French-speaking ones, are placing their hopes in former colonialist power France.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who arrived in Beirut on Wednesday evening for a 36-hour visit, is expected to add detail to previous announcements made by the French government about Lebanon’s education sector.

“I hope that [his visit] will alleviate the financial blockade that we are under,” said Sister Farah, referring to the cash crisis that forced local banks to limit access to the dollar since November.

Earlier this year, French president Emmanuel Macron said that France would support Christian francophone schools in Lebanon, which represent 11 per cent of the country’s 2,854 schools, as part of a regional support programme.

Lebanese activists demonstrate along with former employees of the American University Medical Centre in Beirut after they were dismissed from their jobs last week. AFP

Lebanese army soldiers walk as they secure the area outside American University of Beirut (AUB) medical centre. Reuters

Former employees of the American University Medical Centre react during a demonstration outside the hospital in the capital Beirut. AFP

A woman gestures outside American University of Beirut medical centre in Beirut, Lebanon. Reuters

Lebanese former employees of the American University Medical Centre comfort each other after they were dismissed from their jobs outside the hospital after in Beirut. AP

A woman reacts outside American University of Beirut medical centre in Beirut, Lebanon. Reuters

An anti-government demonstrator poses in a clown mask as others burn tires and wood to block a road in Beirut, Lebanon. AP

A Lebanese physician takes photos as former employees of the American University Medical Center react during a demonstration outside the hospital. AFP

A supporter of a communist group burns representation of US currency, during a protest near the US embassy in Lebanon. AP

Additionally, 53 schools accredited by the French Ministry of Education will receive interest-free loans and emergency scholarships for non-French families, depending on their needs.

Lots of families, even those comparably well-off compared to most in Lebanon, are hoping to receive help.

Nayla, who declined to give her family name, has not paid the fees for her two children’s last quarter at school yet.

“It’s not that I don’t have the money, but I’m just so worried about the situation” she said, breaking down as she spoke on the phone.

“We don’t know what will happen. I spend my time trying to buy cheap meat and beans to freeze. I’d rather keep the money for the basics,” she added.

In June, inflation hit 90 per cent, and analysts expect it to worsen.

“The economic collapse is happening in an exponential way,” said Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “What comes out of it cannot be predicted, but what we can predict is greater inflation and that the lira will continue to deteriorate,” she added. The local currency has lost over 80 per cent of its value on the black market since September.

The rapid deterioration of living conditions shocked Sister Farah.

Saint Anne of Besançon, which is located in an upmarket area of Beirut, has schooled sons and daughters of managers of big hotel or restaurant chains.

“It’s very hard for some families to change their lifestyle,” observed Sister Farah. “One child told me that his father could not afford to pay for a birthday celebration…We feel powerless.”

The Lebanese Education Ministry did not respond to questions about the number of Lebanese schools that might close, but Vincent Gelot, head of French Catholic NGO Oeuvres d’Orient, said that 60 out of over 330 Catholic schools could shut down.

Many Lebanese schools have been struggling for years. A law passed in 2017 increased teacher’s salaries, pushing many schools to also increase their fees. “In total, salaries went up by 38 per cent but we only increased fees by 17 per cent” said Sister Louis Michel Kodssieh, who ran the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption school in the northern Lebanese town of Miziara. After three years of deteriorating finances, the school, which is 86 years old, is closing this summer.

“Lebanon’s trilingual education system [French, Arabic, English] is part of its heritage. It’s not a luxury,” said Jean-Christophe Deberre, director of a France’s Secular Mission, or Mission Laïque Française, which runs 5 schools in Lebanon with 8000 students in total.

“We anticipate that there will be 1,500 students less next year, even if it’s very hard to know what will happen,” he said. The Mission is running a deficit of 10 million Euros, which Mr Deberre ascribed to the 2017 law.

Following fierce resistance from parents, the school did not increase registration fees, and did not fire teachers. But this year, 180 teachers will lose their jobs. The French support programme is “unique”, said Mr Deberre. However, he was not optimistic for the future. “Once it’s over, we’ll be facing a reality that will not have changed,” he said, referring to Lebanon’s economic crisis. “We must get ready for that.”

Updated: July 22, 2020 08:10 PM

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