'A year lost': Lebanon's border conflict takes its toll on schoolchildren

Violence in south Lebanon has shut 58 schools that normally educate 20,000 children

A Palestinian child holds up a drawing as refugee children living in Lebanese camps take part in a protest outside the International Red Cross building in Beirut denouncing the killing of children in Gaza. AFP
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It's Wednesday afternoon, and six-year-old Karamallah sluggishly wanders around the house in his pyjamas.

Normally at this time of the day, he would be in his school uniform learning to write or having fun in the playground with his classmates.

But for Karamallah, normal days have become a fading memory since conflict erupted on the Lebanon-Israel border, just a couple of kilometres from his home in Qlayaa, a village in south Lebanon.

His school, like many others in south Lebanon, has been closed for more than five months due to the security situation.

Since October 8, the Gaza war has spilled over into south Lebanon after Iran-backed Hezbollah opened a front on the border in support of its ally Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah and its allies have been exchanging fire with Israeli forces since.

The fighting has forced 58 schools and education centres to close, according to Unicef, impacting more than 20,000 pupils.

No connection

Most schools in the south have switched to online teaching to maintain continuity with the academic year.

Karamallah's school is one of these. His majority-Christian town has been spared the worst of the violence despite its proximity to the border, so many of its residents have chosen to remain rather than flee north.

But while they may have not left their homes, the lives of children like Karamallah have still been seriously disrupted.

He is often unable to attend his online lessons due to the faltering internet connection.

“It was the same story this morning,” said his mother, Nisrine Farah, as she tried to load the page on the tablet as his lesson was about to begin.

The connection did not come back. Karamallah had to miss his lessons once again.

“These children are at risk of losing the school year,” Unesco's chief of education for Lebanon, Maysoun Chehab, told The National.

Lebanon's poor-quality internet, the lack of electronic devices in some households and inadequate teacher training are among the major hurdles for online education in Lebanon, she explained.

“The students have basically lost their academic year because they’ve been stuck between online classes with no internet and no devices to use,” said Salam Badreddine, the head of the disaster management committee for the Saida-Zahrani area in the south.

This is yet another devastating blow for the education sector, already reeling from Lebanon's grinding economic crisis.

Last year, public schools were closed for months due to repeated teachers' strikes demanding better salaries, which drastically plummeted after the Lebanese pound lost more than 98 per cent of its value.

“To this, one must add the impact of Covid-19 and the [August 2020] Beirut blast, which led to the damage and temporary closure of 280 schools,” Ms Chehab said.

“It's a crisis upon a crisis,” she added.

'A year lost of their life'

Unlike Karamallah's family, most border town residents had no choice but to leave. The violence has displaced more than 91,000 people, including over 33,000 children.

These children are now effectively homeless, crammed into displacement centres or temporarily hosted by relatives, and facing a grim new reality, with no end in sight.

“Their whole world has been turned upside down,” Ettie Higgins, the deputy representative of Unicef Lebanon, told The National

“They're not able to concentrate because they live in overcrowded homes, they are not sleeping properly and are constantly anxious.”

Ms Higgins said disabled children are particularly at risk. “Access to vital medication and services has been disrupted. Even something as seemingly small as a child's hearing aid battery or glasses can be enough to hinder their learning.”

“This year, young people have basically lost everything. It’s a year lost of their lives. They have no hope, they are in despair,” Manahel, a widow from the border village of Odaisseh, told The National.

She lives in the Hotel Montana, an abandoned hotel now housing more than 65 displaced families, in Marwanieh, a less dangerous part of south Lebanon.

They have faced months of uncertainty. Children have “lost all hope in the situation”. Everyone, including her son, dreams of leaving Lebanon.

Ms Higgins said this instability is “severely impacting children's learning process”.

Challenges accessing education and economic hardship are driving more children into labour, she said.

“Some families, deprived of income, have no choice but to rely on their children.”

Lebanese family lives in classroom for five months

Lebanese family lives in classroom for five months

'Ripped out of their communities'

In some cases, displaced children have been able to enrol in new schools. Five months ago, the Hjejeh family left the Lebanese border village of Beit Leif under Israeli bombardment, with little more than a couple of suitcases and the clothes on their backs.

Soon after arriving at the displacement centre in Tyre, Farah Hjejeh had registered her five children in a nearby school.

But they endured such merciless bullying from other pupils that she had to withdraw them soon afterwards.

“They said my kids didn’t have the right clothes,” she told The National. She gestured at her 10-year-old son, Hassan, wearing a sweatshirt and track pants.

Her children didn’t enjoy the school they were enrolled in anyway. Far from their farming village, they felt like outsiders in the city school.

“Everyone from my old school was from my village,” Hassan said. The new school left him self-conscious and at odds with the other pupils, none of whom were like the children he’d grown up with.

Now, instead, Hassan and other children from the displacement centre, itself a former school, attend a daily two-hour tutoring session hosted by a teacher contracted by Save the Children.

“But it’s not a real education,” Mrs Hjejeh told The National. “It’s just to pass the time.”

Hassan said he misses school but enjoys the tutoring sessions because at least they are a break from the monotony of life in the refugee centre.

“One might be tempted to think that if the child has re-enrolled in school, the issue is solved,” Ms Higgins said.

“But, it's much deeper than that. They've been ripped out of their community, out of their homes. They have really been forced to adjust to a new reality that no child should be subjected to. These are traumatic events that last a lifetime,” she added.

“Lebanon has long been famous for its incredible education system: this situation is going to have a generational impact on the entire country.”

Updated: March 25, 2024, 7:22 AM