Hands Up Foundation is now Action Syria

What COVID-19 means for the school we support in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

Amid the world’s rising fears of the coronavirus outbreak spreading to more countries at an alarming rate, Lebanon – like many others – has yet more concerns to contend with.

On 17th October 2019, after decades of economic strain, the Lebanese government announced new tax measures which were met by mass protests across the country. Shortly after, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned and was replaced by Hassan Diab causing political disruption and chaos. The result, as Ben Hubbard explains in The New York Times, is a country going through a huge financial crisis:

‘American dollars — long used in tandem with the Lebanese pound — have grown scarce because worries over the political turmoil have caused more people to try to withdraw their money. So, employers have struggled to pay salaries, tenants to pay rent, and traders to pay for goods and services from abroad.’

On 21st February 2020, Lebanon reported its first coronavirus case and a week later its newly appointed Education Minister, Tarek Majzoub, announced the closure of all educational institutions. By the 15th March, the country went into complete lockdown.

So, what do these turbulent past months mean for the Lebanese education system and the school we fund in the Bekaa Valley?

The 300 Syrian refugee children at the school run by SAWA are now restricted to their overcrowded community camps where hygiene, teaching and stability are not readily available and where social distancing and self-isolation are a luxury they do not have.

From an education perspective, the effect of forced closure in schools is potentially very damaging. In SAWA’s case, this is exacerbated as towards the end of last year the school had to close its doors for two weeks due to the ongoing civil unrest impacting the safety of the pupils and staff. Despite showing promising academic progress on their return to school in November, the children (from ages 6 to 18 years old) are already behind. These forced closures can disrupt learning development and can even lead to a higher risk of dropping out of school altogether. In response, SAWA is sticking to the curriculum by handing out weekly homework to schoolchildren – for core subjects such as English, Arabic, Science and Maths – at their informal settlements providing quality education to ensure the children’s future remains open. The team are also working hard to raise awareness of COVID-19 among the community as well as developing virtual learning methods to engage pupils with. They are even exploring whether the school could open over the summer (circumstances allowing) so that children catch up before the start of the new academic year in September. As explained by Alaa Rajaa Mughrabieh, Child Protection Officer at Hurras Network, concerning Syria: ‘The longer the schools are closed the harder it is to re-establish the system’. The same is true in Lebanon and across the world.

From a social and wellbeing perspective, the concerns are equally worrying. At school, the children work to a daily routine providing stability and a basis to learn essential skills such as responsibility and time management. School meals are provided daily which offer students food security and the nutrition they need throughout the day to learn. It is also an opportunity for schoolchildren to be surrounded by their friends in a clean and safe environment. All of these factors result in less pressure on parents and caregivers who are already strained with the day-to-day demands of living in such a hostile environment. At SAWA, psychosocial support is on hand and integrated into all the children’s work to improve their physical and mental wellness. This is such an important part of their school life and providing the same level of care during this time is key in order to overcome extra hardship.

This is not only the case for students and their families but teachers as well – 70% live in community camps. The burdens exist for everyone. Fortunately, throughout this pandemic, Hands Up have been able to pay teachers and support staff salaries providing some form of normality and income for the team.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Lebanon with reports that it has risen above 1,160, with around 25 deaths at the time of writing. While the spread of coronavirus, presently, doesn’t seem to be high in the Bekaa Valley, it remains a serious risk and one that we are keeping a close eye on. With this in mind, despite our best efforts, schools are unlikely to go back fully until Autumn. There are many obstacles for the world to overcome in the months – even years – ahead and nowhere is this truer than in Lebanon and neighbouring countries.

According to Relief Web, the Lebanese government is now looking into plans to ease the lockdown. We hope to reopen the school as soon as is safe to do so but hope in the Middle East is a very uncertain word. As Lebanon’s economy continues to sink with the devaluation of the national currency, and as anti-establishment protests escalate with crowds congregating despite the virus, the country remains in a vulnerable position.

The potential of disruption to not only the school we support but the Lebanese education system as a whole is undeniable. Just how extensive, we have yet to tell. Still, we remain positive and determined; the school is in extremely capable hands and the team at SAWA will adapt to whatever future may come their way. The staff continue to work on contingency plans, and, in turn, we continue to provide support throughout these challenging times so that the children don’t lose out on their education any more than they already have.

The importance of a reliable, efficient and robust education system – over the last eight months especially – has become increasingly apparent, and it is something that Hands Up and SAWA will continue to work together to deliver.

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