When Education Gets You No Where Second graders at the UNRWA prep. school in Shatila during an English lesson Foto: Sofie Loumann Nielsen
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are turning their back on the school system. Alarmingly high dropout rates are causing UNICEF concern By Sofie Loumann Nielsen 28-year-old Taha Sammour lights a cigarette and leans back in the couch on the first floor of the Simply Red Bar situated at Beirut’s popular Hamra street. A humble smile is released through his lips when asked about his current work situation. “I am the manager of this bar. I was lucky. The owner is my friend, that’s the only reason why I got this job,” he tells. Downstairs, someone drops a plate on the floor. For a second he loses focus and turns his head towards the sound. He takes a deep inhale of his cigarette. He is relaxed now, but hasn’t always been, he says. Despite being born, raised and educated in Lebanon, on paper he is still a refugee. Compared to Lebanese identification cards, his own double size card almost too conveniently reveals his nationality without even opening it. “Palestinian” it says inside. In Lebanon, a title that shuts more doors than it opens due to a strict Lebanese labor law and a complete exclusion of property ownership. “It sucks. Big time. After my graduation from the university, I had a plan all worked out, and I was ready to open my own business. So I went to the bank to apply for a loan. They told me they were very positive about my application. I had credentials, years of experience in business management and knowledge. Everything looked good – until I told them I was
Palestinian. “Sorry, then we can’t help you,” they told me.” However, Tara didn’t lose hope. “Hope is all we Palestinians have left,” he explains. None the less, today, Palestinian youngsters are having a hard time imagining their future at the Lebanese labor market – a fact that has become one of the main explanations of the increasing of student dropouts from UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) schools in Lebanon, according to researchers from the American University of Beirut. Recently, this view was underlined by the head of UNICEF in Lebanon, Ray Virgilio Torres, as he issued a report on the subject late November, concluding that 15 percent of children between seven and 17 in Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camps have dropped out. According to UNICEF’s findings in 2009, 50 percent of the 17year-olds and 40 percent of the 16year-old aren’t receiving any education throwing them into a vicious circle of vulnerability as UNRWA that administrate the schools is lacking resources to reintegrate dropouts combined with the harsh financially conditions that families in the camps endure. “The families are struggling to survive, so when a child drops out it gets a job inside the camp and contribute to the family’s income, “
says Dr Anies Al-Hroub, assistant professor of educational psychology at the American University of Beirut.
Banging the head against the employment wall Historically, Lebanon has constituted a place where Palestinian companies, especially in the trades of engineering and auditing were located providing many jobs to Palestinian. However, this changed after the 1950’s when the Israeli-Arab conflict and war in 1948 gave rise to many Palestinian refugees in the country. Today, around 400, 000 Palestinians are registered in the country by UNRWA, but it has become increasingly common to assume that the number is only half that many, perhaps 200,000-250,000
Ever since 1948, the main argument by the Lebanese to justify the exclusion from labor market has been that the Palestinians are temporary residents and should therefore not be integrated into Lebanese society, according to the report “The Employability of Palestinian Professionals in Lebanon” from 2008, published by FAFO in Norway, a research centre for international politics. A point of view that was further strengthened by hand of the Lebanese government in 1962, when they by law banned foreigners, including Palestinians - from working in 73 professions – primarily high skilled jobs that require university degrees. In 2005, only few exceptions were made, as 278 of the 109,379 work permits given to non-Lebanese were issued to Palestinians, figures by the Ministry of Labor show. “Of course there are many factors at play. However, among the students, parents and even some teachers that I meet there is a strong consensus that education isn’t necessarily the highest priority. You can imagine some parents watching their eldest sibling
finish his degree and be academically qualified just to become unemployed it affects the encouragement of the younger siblings, without a doubt,” says Dr Anies Al-Hroub. According to a source within the European Union’s delegation to Lebanon, another problem is the fact that the mindset and the attitude among the staff at the UNRWA schools in general are very despondent. Usually they themselves are refugees and know what the prospects are.
Settling for less During Taha’s university studies, he took on a job at a hotel in Beirut to supply his studies. “I couldn’t get any permanent contract or promotion, and when I from time to time confronted my boss, the explanation was always my nationality,” Taha explains. In the FAFO report it is argued that discrimination has been proven statistically, utilizing survey data from three impoverished and rapidly changing communities in greater Beirut. The analysis revealed significantly lower hourly wages for Palestinian refugees as compared to Lebanese citizens, both for people with secondary or higher education and for those with only basic education. Furthermore, it showed that UNRWA and the NGO sector are critical for the employment of professionals as statistics from 2008 show that 37 percent of employed Palestinian university graduates received salaries from UNRWA, and 22 percent of the employed with a semi-professional education do the same. This means they’re working inside the camps where UNRWA operates. Here, the purchasing power is very scarce making the chances of expanding business very small.
UNRWA is bleeding
Three weeks ago in a press release, UNRWA announced it is currently projecting a shortfall of $79.6 million for 2009 and of $125.7 for 2010 against its programme requirements. With no working capital to resort to, in the present circumstances, UNRWA is unable to meet all its commitments. In Lebanon, this means services in education will be curtailed. A circumstance that is worrying Dr. Anies Al-Hroub. “As with schools all over the world, there are always students that require extra care; as an example a psychologist or a counsellor, especially if a student is considering dropping out. This is very basic, but UNRWA hasn’t got the money for this combined with the fact that there isn’t any special procedures on how to handle these students,” he explains and emphasizes that dropout rates among Palestinian refugees attending Lebanese public schools outside of the camps are lower than inside. Prevention and reintegration of school dropouts are some of the projects that the European Union has embarked on funding in Lebanon since 2006. Despite, an interest in Lebanon that primarily concerns trade relations, the Palestinian question has become one that kicked of a 15 million educational project aiming at improving UNRWA’s educational system and opening better employments prospects for Palestinian in the country. For many years, the EU has been the biggest financially source of money to UNRWA’s work that is mainly comprised by contribution from international organisation and other countries. The magnitude of the employability of Palestinian refugees is obvious to the EU too, explaining the large contribution every year. However, for the European Union to use its trade relation as a mean to pressure the
government on these law would seem unlikely as it would damage the EU itself, a source from the EU delegation to Lebanon explains. The result of the projects is yet to be seen as it takes some years of implementing before any changes will occur. According to the source, UNRWA is happy about the contribution.
Beyond the law Taha presses the last two centimetres of his fourth cigarette into the ashtray. Lebanon’s labor market hasn’t been treating him gently for many years. However, rejections at job interviews haven’t been the only wall he has met in Lebanon. “I was the only Palestinian on my university for four years. I remember the first day. We did the usual introduction, and I told them: “Hi, my name is Taha, and I’m a Palestinian.”. The next day, I went to the same seat, and on my table was painted a Lebanese Forces Cross, which is the sign of an extremely right Christian party. They had the worst part in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Shatila and Sabra in 1982,” he explains. But it didn’t make him give up the hope of getting an education. “Even though I am met with resentment and the prospect of hard times finding a job, I continue. I refuse to give up, and it only makes me stronger,” says Taha. On the question of Palestinian youth’s future if the picture of dropouts isn’t changed any time soon, Dr Anies Al-Hroub answers: “Youth should be occupied in something socially desirable. They need to feel their value in this country or society. The picture for me is not good, unless something radical is done.”
Facts: UNRWA was established in 1948 following the Arab-Israeli conflict to carry out direct relief and works programmes for Palestine refugees.
Today, the organisation handles health and education throughout all Palestinian refugee camps in the Arab countries. Source: www.UNRWA.org