By Antoine Abou-Diwan
BEIRUT: Amin Hwyder was just 14 years old when he quit school and started delivering groceries to help support his parents and five siblings. “It was an easy decision to make,” the Chiyah resident said. He didn’t like school, there was plenty of unskilled, under-the-table work available, and his parents needed the money. His father earned just $400 per month working as a building watchman, and his mother is disabled.
Though the World Bank ranks Lebanon an upper-middle income economy, one in four Lebanese live in poverty, without enough income to meet basic needs.
Amin’s situation is far from unique. He is just one of thousands of Lebanese children in Beirut and across Lebanon who have been forced to abandon their education due to financial circumstances beyond their control.
While education is compulsory in the country for those between 6 and 15, ensuring the country’s children actually attend school is another matter altogether.
“This is the issue,” said Sonia Khoury, program director with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education. “We don’t have an enforcement decree.”
The government took an important step in 2011 when it made school mandatory for Lebanese children. However the ministries of education, social affairs, and justice could not agree on how to enforce the decree, Khoury explained.
Stalemates and disagreements between government ministries are common in Lebanon. In this case, the government is not only unable to enforce its own education law, it is unwilling to do so until it addresses the root cause – poverty – which forces thousands of young Lebanese like Amin into the labor force prematurely, darkening their prospects.
“The problem is linked to a social issue in this country,” Khoury said. “Even if the [enforcement] decree was issued and the mayor or Internal Security Forces went to his house and made his children go to school, how will this family live? What if the father is sick and can’t work?”
This is a question that the Social Affairs Ministry deals with every day, said Fehmi Karami, a senior adviser on child protection to Social Affairs Minister Rashid Derbas.
“We have a lot of children in labor because of the economic situation,” Karami continued. “Solving such a problem is not just an action or reaction of taking children from a garage [where they are working] and putting them in school. We need a more strategic plan to support the family economically.”
Indeed, evidence of Lebanon’s barely functioning social safety net is everywhere. Children beg and sell household items on Beirut’s street corners; they deliver food, groceries, and narguileh or even haul trash.
And while social services for Lebanese are slim at best, the war in Syria and subsequent influx of refugees has further stretched the country’s meager resources.
Lebanon officially has a population of about 4 million people and there are currently 1.1 million Syrian refugees registered with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in the country. Lebanese officials estimate that the actual number is closer to 2 million, giving Lebanon the dubious distinction of having the highest number of refugees in the world per capita.
A large portion of Syrian refugees live in informal settlements in the central Bekaa Valley, across Mount Lebanon as well as the north and the south, while many others have settled among Lebanese citizens in cities and villages.
Though refugee children’s prospects are bleak, the education minister has pledged to educate every Syrian child in Lebanon as long as international funding is available. Nearly half of Lebanon’s 480,000 school-aged refugee children registered with UNHCR are now enrolled in public schools or government-subsidized semiprivate schools.
“You cannot support Syrians without supporting the society in which they live,” Karami noted. “One way to support refugees is to support the society. Even before the Syrian crisis we suffered,” he added. “We went from a Civil War, to an economic crisis, to a Syrian crisis.”
To that end, the ministry is updating the criteria of its “poverty program,” and aims to promote it via television adverts in September, Karami explained.
The program, supported by the World Bank, provides needy families with free health care, free education for children, and a modest monthly stipend for food.
“We should move from a position of responding [to problems] to a stage of building infrastructure and systems [that help kids stay in school].”
The government has also expanded a project initially intended for refugee women and children to cover all eligible women and children in Lebanon. The initiative provides safe spaces, psychosocial support, as well as skills and vocational training in order to help the women gain some independence.
Despite these programs, families like Mohammad al-Ali's are still in a precarious position.
While Ali owns a modest café on a busy street, not far from Beirut’s Bashoura neighborhood, he still hasn’t managed to pay last year’s tuition for his two children. On top of that he said he worries that he will not be permitted to enroll Natalia, 10, and Karim, 5, in the upcoming school year if he doesn’t pay the $2,333 he owes.
As for Amin, the boy who quit school to help his family, he is now 16 years old and earns as much as his father. He earns $400 per month for helping at a furniture and restoration business in Beirut’s Bechara Khoury neighborhood.
This story first appeared in The Daily Star, Aug. 20, 2016.