AsiaNews' campaign in support of Lebanon’s Catholic schools
by Dario Salvi

The economic crisis is threatening to sink the educational system of the Land of the Cedars and the secular network of over 300 institutes linked to the Church. Funds are needed for teachers' salaries and to support costs, from electricity to heating. Fr Youssef: the new phenomenon of school drop-outs emerges, we must urgently protect schools to support the mission.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon’s protracted economic crisis is endangering the education system and the centuries-old network of Catholic schools, which in addition to providing an excellent level of education are a privileged place of encounter between young Christians and Muslims. The dramatic nature of the situation is confirmed by the general secretary of Catholic schools, Fr. Youssef Nasr, who is also the coordinator of all private institutions in the country. From management costs to teachers' salaries, the rise in prices linked to inflation and devaluation of the local currency are draining the coffers of schools, unable to meet their costs. For the first time, the number of "dropouts", fuelled by the two years of closures and distance learning related to the Covid-19 pandemic, is climbing. In response to the educational emergency, AsiaNews is launching a campaign to support Catholic schools and the education of Lebanese youth, both Christian and Muslim.

Below our interview with Fr. Youssef, and details on how to make donations:

What is the situation of Catholic schools in Lebanon?

We are in crisis. It started with the economic downturn, which began in October 2019, but the consequences are now investing the school system with two factors: the value of the Lebanese currency, the lira, which has plummeted compared to the dollar [today a dollar is worth 23 thousand liras, before the crisis 1500]. In addition, salaries have remained unchanged, but with the depreciation of the currency, purchasing power has plummeted. These factors have serious consequences for the school, because on the one hand, a teacher's salary is worth nothing, and there are many requests for a raise in order to be able to live with dignity. On the other hand, there are the running costs: from heating to electricity, which we have to provide ourselves with generators. Before, 20 liters of fuel cost 20,000 lire, today it costs 320,000 and this has an enormous impact on our budgets.

What value does Catholic education have in a nation that is so ethnically and denominationally complex?

In Lebanon we have over one million students. This year, 250,000 are attending state schools, less than 30%. The other 800,000 or so go to private facilities (70%) and we, as Catholics, receive around 200,000 students in 330 institutes of various levels from primary through to college scattered throughout the country. Of these, 90 are semi-funded: The State pays one million liras per year to contribute to expenses, the remaining one million is paid as tuition by the parents. However, today two million is no longer enough... 10 million is needed and the funds are not enough. The quality of education is no in question, rather its the very survival of this system. On September 1, we were able to start the school year after the closures imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. The challenge is can we continue?

The Lebanese Church places great emphasis on these institutions. Why are they so important?

The Church's mission in education began in 1736, with the great Lebanese council held in the convent of Louaizé. Since that time, several orders, Western and Eastern, from the Jesuits to the Franciscans have committed themselves to this educational mission. An effort that preceded the birth of the Lebanese State [independence came in 1943, ed] and continues today, thanks to the work of about 60 Catholic congregations active in the sector, including the Marianites, the Maronites, the Antonites.

Over time, how have the institutes promoted dialogue and Islamic-Christian integration?

Of course, Catholic schools are a common space for all Lebanese! 27% of our students are Muslims, so ours is also a social mission, not just an educational one, at the service of the entire country. To give an example: in a school in the south, run by the Maronite Anthonian Sisters in Nabatiye, 95% of the more than two thousand students are Muslim. It offers a mission at the level of the State, because it encourages exchange between Christians and Muslims. In another in the Bekaa, of the Don Bosco Sisters, more than 70% are Muslims because it is an area with an Islamic majority. We have the task of safeguarding these structures, especially those on the border, because they ensure the Christian presence and are essential in counteracting the phenomenon of migration.

How are families and students coping in this situation?

The phenomenon of dropping out of school is strongly emerging because many young people have lost hope. They are looking for a job to help families in difficulty, they believe that studying is not useful... a new and strange feeling! Here the future of Lebanon is at stake: because of the coronavirus we stopped for almost two years, but now the return to presence has given new life. We have to face the economic crisis, the real obstacle and biggest challenge for the generations to come.

AsiaNews is launching an aid campaign for Lebanese Catholic schools: Why would you appeal to people to support you with a donation?

Education is a very important for the Lebanese people who attach great value to the institutions that we have acquired over time. We are asking anyone who is in a position to help us overcome this moment that will not last forever. Protecting our schools also means supporting our mission. We need funds for teachers' salaries, to allow them to live in dignity, and resources to cover costs, from fuel to school supplies.

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