Bishop of Jbeil-Byblos: funds and aid in response to 'dramatic' school crisis
by Dario Salvi

More than 90 thousand students have dropped out of school. No money for salaries and school supplies. The cost of a ballpoint pen has gone from 2,000 to 25,000 Lebanese liras. Professors fleeing abroad as soon as possible. Msgr Aoun: an educational model of excellence that has fostered integration between Christians and Muslims is at risk.


Beirut (AsiaNews) - The political and economic crisis in Lebanon, exacerbated by the rise of the dollar that "was once worth 1500 Lebanese liras and has now reached 20 thousand", is "bringing the educational system to its knees" and the prospects for the immediate future are "dramatic", warns Msgr. Michel Aoun, Lebanese bishop of Jbeil-Byblos of the Maronites.

The prelate tells AsiaNews that "the formation of a new government, essential to relaunch the country, is hampered by internal and external problems, including regional and international conflicts." The resumption of the school year "scheduled for mid-September, even if each institution decides independently, is at risk due to lack of funds. To give an example, once a ballpoint pen cost 2 thousand Lebanese pounds, today 25 thousand."

He explains that in the past, "the budget of an institute was 65% reserved for personnel expenses, such as salaries for professors and collaborators, while the remaining 35% for the maintenance of the structure with electricity, diesel, school supplies. With current prices, he warns, "I don't know how they will be able to sustain themselves because the funds are no longer sufficient. In spite of this, we cannot give up and we have to count on God and friends who have supported us so far, even if only in small amounts".

Once upon a time, Lebanese schools were a model of excellence and Catholic institutions among the most accredited: according to a report by the World Economic Forum, in 2016 the land of the cedars was ranked fourth in the world for the best level of education in mathematics and science; its citizens were also famous for being educated and multilingual. Now the situation has changed and there are thousands of newly poor families, overwhelmed by an economic crisis that has forced parents to withdraw their children from private schools because they can no longer afford the fees. According to the Ministry of Education, since the beginning of the emergency in the second half of 2019, more than 90 thousand Lebanese students have moved elsewhere, mostly to agricultural areas.

Entire households have seen their savings vanish in a short time, and the purchasing power of wages is increasingly scarce, about one-tenth of its pre-crisis value. According to United Nations sources, poverty now affects more than 75% of the population. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the emergency, fueling school dropout also due to the difficulties associated with distance learning.

The network of Catholic schools, which trained up to 185,000 students, lost 9,000 last year alone and was forced to close 14 of its 337 facilities. Former secretary general Boutros Azar explains that "if there is not adequate support from the private sector, it will be the end of quality education in Lebanon". Also for this reason, in the last period, various realities have launched support and aid campaigns, with the aim of bringing hundreds of thousands of children back to school. "We have 100 thousand pupils in need - confirms Monsignor Aoun - who must be helped to face this school year. It would be enough 200 dollars for each one, about 20 million dollars to avoid losing an entire year of study and even a small donation can make a difference".

The Bishop of Jbeil says another further element of concern is that good teachers, as soon as they can, leave Lebanon and emigrate to France or Canada. The cleric emphasizes that this also risks bringin about the end of an educational system that was once considered of excellence, one which dates back to 1700 and has fostered not only education, but also integration between Christians and Muslims and encouraged the development of a pluralistic and tolerant society. Just to give an example, explains Msgr. Aoun, "the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt studied in a Catholic school; in a school run by the Antonian Sisters 95% of the students are Muslim boys and girls, chosen by families for the level of education and freedom in teaching. And again, in Beirut we have six institutes with at least 20% Muslim students."

The Lebanese Church has set up an emergency committee chaired by the Archbishop of Tripoli, to seek solutions to the financial crisis that threatens to sink the educational system and the entire country. "If Lebanon is lost - concludes Msgr. Aoun - the entire Middle East is lost. We are a small reality, but one that has been able to transmit values and models throughout history. The current phase is the result of an incomprehensible policy, but a little help is enough to relaunch the nation. Everyone's good will is needed".