The Chams family faced a horrible choice: feed the family or divert what little money was left after Lebanon’s three-year financial crisis into schooling their 12-year-old daughter.
Eating won out.
So Maha - like her mother before her - left school with little in the way of qualifications to prosper in a country where day-to-day survival is now the No. 1 priority.
Economic crisis has pushed thousands of Lebanese families like hers into ever-tighter corners, and schooling has now taken a hit in favor of other basics such as food and fuel.
“Having a roof over my children’s heads and food to eat is more necessary (than education),” her mother, Nayla, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as she weighed options.
Maha is among 30,000 children estimated to have dropped out of school this past academic year, according to the United Nations (UN), as parents opt to send children to work or keep them home to save on school fees.
For Nayla, it was a decision driven by pure hunger - despite the fact she and her husband Kamil both work full time in Beirut restaurants and top up their income with catering jobs.
But they could not pay the bills that went with Maha’s schooling - the cost of transport and supplies rose by at least 40 percent last year - even if lessons were free.
“Education costs mount up very quickly. School supplies and matching t-shirts for field trips are just two examples of hidden expenses. There is always something,” she said.
Lebanon’s economy has been in freefall since 2019 since when the pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value, fueling inflation, wiping out savings, and pushing almost three in four of the nation’s 6.7 million people into poverty, the UN says.
The crisis came after successive governments piled on debt following the 1975–1990 civil war, with little to show for the spending binge.
Economists say any dream of rebuilding the nation was derailed by repeated mismanagement at the top.
Now young Lebanese are paying a high price, with the UN estimating that one in 10 of the children pulled from school this past year have been put to work instead.
Nayla would love her first born to pursue his dream of working in a management role but the crisis strangling the economy has put a stop to that, too.
Sami graduated from university two years ago.
But the 22-year-old feels he has nothing to show for it, as Nayla could not repay his tuition after banks restricted dollar withdrawals in reaction to what the World Bank called years of state corruption, waste, and unsustainable financial policies.
Chams says she has $30,000 locked in an account that she cannot access. Which means her son’s graduation certificate was withheld, she said, so he is unable to pursue his chosen field.
Sami, who studied human resources, is working as a data entry officer - not a job he ever planned.
“I feel like a failed parent,” the 42-year-old mother said, saddened that her daughter would never finish middle school and that her son’s adult life was now on hold, too.
The Lebanese Education Ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the fragile state of the education system and whether government was failing the younger generation.
Right to learn
The right to education is enshrined in the constitution and Lebanon is also signed up to the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to provide a quality education.
Yet the reality on the ground has undermined that goal - even for richer families who opted for fee-paying schools.
“Although I can afford to send my only child to a private school, I don’t believe this will continue, said Mazen Sarmanji, a 39-year-old engineer, as he dropped his teen to school.
The lush circular driveway of the American Community School in Beirut in an upmarket suburb was packed with worried parents, gossiping about the tanking economy and the hard term ahead.
The engineer admitted he wanted safety in numbers before pulling his 16-year-old out of school to save $1,200 a year.
“I am simply waiting to see if any of his close friends’ parents will enroll them in a public school so that I may follow suit,” he said.
“The school fees may have not increased by a lot, but the cost of living is increasing day by day, and it’s getting very challenging to keep the same amount of food on the table.”
The Thomson Reuters Foundation spoke to six private schools, which said their fees range from $1,200 to $3,000 a year.
According to the Ministry of Higher Education, private schools have long been a key player in the national system, schooling about 60 percent of the country’s 1.25 million students.
But in the 2020–2021 academic year, 55,000 students shifted from private to public schools, adding extra pressure on an already cash-strapped state sector.
The World Bank said 5 percent of all private schools closed between 2018 and 2021, as money pressures hit every stratum of society.
Plus, school is already late to start as the crisis bites deep, with state teachers striking over pay cuts and public administrators fearing a shortfall of fuel to keep the lights and heaters on through winter.
“We do not know how things will proceed throughout the school year, but we will do our responsibility as much as possible and with our skills for the benefit of the pupils,” said one school director who wished to remain anonymous.
Ramez Al Helu, director of the International School of Lebanon (ISL), said he once had schemes to help cash-strapped families meet their bills.
But no more - he needs whatever cash he can get.
“We used to be happy seeing this space full of happy children,” he said, his cohort now down to 200 students from 1,200 pre-crisis and less than half his instructors in situ.
“The playground is mostly deserted, and the students are upset because their friends are no longer here or their favorite teacher has left.”