07/24/2021, 12.11
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L'Oeuvre d'Orient to help 120,000 children go back to school

by Fady Noun

A French association will provide special and urgent financial aid of about 3.6 million euros in favour of 355 Christian schools and six Catholic universities for the year 2021-22. Teachers are quitting in droves because of low wages. For the apostolic nuncio, donations serve to “make up for the state’s shortcomings. The solution to this serious problem is political.”

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Caritas Lebanon plans to centralise and coordinate aid to Lebanon’s Catholic school network, which is in serious danger of disappearing. The holy See will provide help, the Apostolic Nunciature announced.

Caritas Lebanon, the main social arm of Lebanon’s Catholic Churches, on Wednesday welcomed a delegation from L'Œuvre d'Orient, led by its director general, Bishop Pascal Gollnish, who announced that his association would provide emergency educational aid worth approximately 3.6 million euros to 335 Christian schools and six Catholic universities, for the 2021-2022 schoolyear.

This money should help about 120,000 pupils go back to school after they missed the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years. The aid will be accompanied by a call for donations that Caritas Lebanon will centralise; the Catholic School General Secretariat will take part in its redistribution under the supervision of the Assembly of Catholic Patriarchs and Bishops in Lebanon (APECL[*]) through an ad-hoc commission chaired by Mgr Youssef Soueif, Maronite bishop of Tripoli.

A press conference was held to present this coordinated multilateral action, attended by the Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Josef Spiteri; Father Michel Abboud, president of Caritas Lebanon; Maronite bishops Michel Aoun and Youssef Soueif, representing the APECL; Fr Youssef Nasr, president of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools; and Fr Abdo Bou Kasm, president of the Catholic Information Centre.

“The rise in inequalities since the start of the country’s economic crisis (October 2019) has led to a large gap in access to quality learning among Lebanon’s children, to the detriment of the poorest,” Father Abboud said.

“Poverty is a major obstacle to children's access to education since many families cannot afford to buy school materials or have to rely on their children's work. Since October 2019, when social unrest shook Lebanon, school dropout has been massive.

“During the 2019-2020 school year, several teachers’ strikes took place over late payment of salaries, further disrupting learning. The crisis was made worse by the currency’s collapse, the Port of Beirut explosion (August 2020), and COVID-19 containment measures.

“Since the start of the pandemic (early 2020), more than 1.2 million children in Lebanon no longer attend school and are now facing a real risk of never going back to school, if nothing is done for them. The accumulation of political, health, social and economic crises have led to a real educational disaster.

“As a result, a partnership between Caritas-Lebanon and L’Œuvre d´Orient has been set up with a general goal of ensuring 120,000 children go back to school. This partnership involves 235 Christian schools and six Catholic universities in Lebanon,” Father Abboud said.

Direct aid worth 3.6 million euros

“This strategic funding will make it possible to provide direct aid to schools on the basis of the vulnerability criterion developed by L’Œuvre d´Orient, which performed exceptional field work in this regard. This aid is worth 3.6 million euros and will be granted based on criteria set by the schools, to cover between 20 and 90 per cent of school fees, on a case-by-case basis. L’Oeuvre d'Orient will grant, on average, 30 euros per student, a number which corresponds to about half the cost of standard schooling (5 million Lebanese pounds).

“By way of comparison, private schools in Lebanon cater to 70 per cent of all school age children, that is around 1,100,000 pupils. About 200,000 children are educated in schools that come under the Catholic School General Secretariat.

“In addition, a second aspect of L’Oeuvre d´Orient’s support will consist in helping the schools directly by subsidising generators, insurance, maintenance and transport, up to 35 per cent.”

Teachers quitting

It is obvious that the Caritas Lebanon-L’Œuvre d´Orient partnership will not be enough to cover all the needs, since, for example, it does not take into account teachers’ salaries. It needs other sources of revenue, especially donations from the diaspora, the international community, and the Churches.

At the end of the press conference, a short documentary was screened, highlighting this need, focusing on the Saints-Cœurs secondary school in Aïn Ebel (South Lebanon), which is partially free at the primary level.

The school – which welcomes children from across southern Lebanon, with Muslims often in the majority – is set to lose seven of its teachers because they cannot work for wages that range on average between 100 and 117 dollars.

According to Rodolphe Abboud, president of the private school teachers' union, who is the principal in one school, hundreds are leaving out of 43,000 temporary or permanent teachers.

“The majority of them quit teaching altogether. Many migrate to other countries where they work and get paid in foreign currency. The others, to a lesser extent, go to the highest bidder,” he explains.

Some departures, of course, are more strategic than others, and weaken the Catholic school network, leaving parents without any alternatives than sending their children to public schools or going abroad.

Maintaining a sense of responsibility

“Help is not there to relieve parents of their responsibility,” warns L’Œuvre d´Orient’s director general. Families that can must continue to contribute to the costs of educating their children. The aid provided should not exempt schools from reflecting upon the way they manage their establishments.”

“Of course, schools are important units of social life,” added the official. “They bring together and join children of different denominations in the same process. They teach a sense of citizenship. However, that is not the first issue. The despair currently felt by most Lebanese is. The Lebanese must regain pride in their own country. Christians must start loving their country again.” For Bishop Gollnisch, the international community, the Churches, and the diaspora must show generosity.

The Holy See, the leading contributor

The Apostolic Nuncio was the first to respond to the appeal of L’Oeuvre d´Orient’s director general. Archbishop Joseph Spiteri announced that the Holy See would renew its grant for the 2021-2022 school year to 90 semi-free schools, located in the poorest rural and urban regions.

“After the Day of Prayer and Reflection on Lebanon held at the Vatican, on 1 July, the Protestant and Orthodox Churches, and even some Muslim friends will also participate in the fundraising effort,” said Archbishop Spiteri. “It is necessary to save Catholic schools and universities, and enable them to fulfill their mission.”

“However, we must not delude ourselves,” he said in concluding. “Donors, associations, the diaspora, and international aid are there only to make up for the state’s shortcomings. The solution to this serious problem is political.”

[*]APECL, Assemblée des patriarches et évêques catholiques au Liban.

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