Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

South Lebanon: Students Struggle to Complete Academic Year Amid Israeli Violence

The situation of students in South Lebanon is concerning as it has the potential to worsen social inequality and further isolate the region.

South Lebanon Students Struggle
A picture taken from south Lebanon’s village of Aitaroun shows smoke billowing in the horizon from near the border with Israel. AFP

Dana Hourany

Aya Karout, 18, had aspirations of becoming a pharmacist. She simply needed to complete her senior year of high school before enrolling in university and pursuing the specialization she loved.

Her ambitions, however, have come to a sudden halt.

The Karout family resides in the Lebanese village of Meiss al-Jabal, right at the border between Lebanon and Israel. The Israeli military has devastated the community, destroying several residences and businesses, causing infrastructural damage, and poisoning agricultural fields with white phosphorus bombs.

This prompted Aya’s family to relocate to the village of Chaqra, which is a little farther out from the borders. Aya’s school, like many others in southern Lebanon, has turned to remote learning, particularly in border towns and villages under threat of bombing or at critical points of bombardment. UNICEF reports that 58 schools and education centers have been closed as a result of the violence, affecting more than 20,000 students.

This has caused several issues for students, particularly those whose families were displaced and no longer possess a reliable source of income. Internet access, Wi-Fi, mobile data, and even laptops and smartphones have become additional expenses that many families cannot afford.

According to Aya, the government has not adequately protected and safeguarded the rights of southern Lebanese students, adding to their struggle.

“We are not in a normal state; this is an extraordinary situation that needs immediate and exceptional solutions,” Aya told Fanack.

On October 10th, Minister of Education Abbas Halabi, of Lebanon’s caretaker government, decided to close schools near the southern borders due to safety concerns. The Ministry of Education and Higher Education initiated an emergency educational plan called “Education Flexibility,” which includes opening 10 schools and 10 training centers.

However, as the year draws to a close and her final exams approach, Aya slowly loses hope of an adequate response for her senior year.

A Year of Fear and Anxiety

This year has brought many changes for Aya. While she was able to study easily from home during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, after schools were closed down and lessons were shifted online, this time, she is not at home, and anxiety pervades all facets.

“How can you focus on classes when you hear bombs dropping?” she expressed. “Fear is ever present. You never know if you’re going to hear that one of your family members or friends has been killed.”

She emphasizes that her experience is not unique; it’s shared by her classmates. Some struggle to access Wi-Fi or mobile data to attend classes. Others are grappling with severe depression or anxiety, diverting their attention from this crucial year.

In Lebanon, grade 9 and grade 12 (the final year of high school) are completed by an official state exam, uniform across all schools, allowing pupils to continue to the next level of education—university in Aya’s case. In 2020, during the onset of the pandemic, grade 12 exams were canceled, and students were issued certificates. In subsequent years, exams were held.

In late April, Halabi announced that grade 9 exams would not take place, with no decision yet regarding grade 12 students, which Aya deems unfair.

“Where will we take the exams? Which schools? Wouldn’t it be too dangerous to hold exams in schools in southern areas where bombs are dropped consistently?” she asked, highlighting that some students may not make it to designated exam halls due to displacement or financial constraints affecting transportation.

She also notes that students have not benefited much from this school year due to various complications: Lebanon’s unreliable internet connection poses a challenge for many students, compounded by instances where teachers lack connectivity and have to reschedule. Moreover, focus is near impossible amid the backdrop of ongoing border violence.

“We are also expected to go to the library and print course material ourselves, which is both time-consuming and costly,” she said.

Since the economy collapsed in late 2019, Lebanon’s public institutions have been in a state of decline, plunging much of the population into poverty and severely affecting state schools. Public-sector workers, including teachers, have gone on strike in response to the considerable devaluation of their pay as a result of the Lebanese pound’s more than 98% drop against the dollar. The educational system’s shortage of finance has resulted in numerous closures over the last three years, with a rising number of pupils being removed from formal education and, in some circumstances, forced to work.

For Aya, the years following the onset of COVID-19 have dealt a severe blow to the quality of education.

“We barely learned anything,” she added, emphasizing that this year, in particular, has been the most difficult, with obstacles seemingly never ending and few solutions in sight.

Disparity in Suffering

Despite the war’s significant impact on southerners, Aya believes that the challenges were not fairly dispersed. Many families were able to enroll their children in alternative schools, with Aya elaborating that “private schools seemed better equipped for online learning compared to public ones.”

Alaa Rammal, 19, originally from heavily affected Odaisseh, relocated to Qmatiyeh in Mount Lebanon’s Aley district at the start of the violence. As a student at the Lebanese International University’s Nabatieh campus, she found herself unable to attend classes in person.

“The university only offered online classes once and failed to provide solutions,” Alaa told Fanack, adding that she had to depend on studying independently at home, occasionally with assistance from peers.

Alaa missed more than a month of class before making arrangements to get to the Beirut campus and completing the fall semester. However, she was unable to register for the spring semester because of additional financial burden brought on by her displacement.

“I treated it as a break from the strain and anxiety brought on by the recent war-related news and my ongoing concerns. I had no other choice,” she said.

Although her family lost close friends in the war, she says they are trying to remain optimistic.

“Our goal is to return to our homes and villages, despite the difficulty of restarting our lives amid all the destruction,” she said.

Alaa says that Hezbollah has been providing financial aid, helping alleviate some monetary pressure. However, Aya highlights the lack of support for students, particularly from the Ministry of Education.

“Around three months ago, the ministry called me and promised to give students a one-time payment of $20 each, but they never followed up,” she said.

The Ministry of Telecommunications also announced in early May that southern Lebanon students would receive 20GB of free mobile data; however, this too never transpired.

Aya hopes the ministry will either cancel or simplify official exams. She suggests granting southern students free access to the “Shater” platform – an innovative online educational space – launched by the ministry for educational support.

Neither Aya nor Alaa can make educational plans for their future, as their aspirations have been overshadowed by concerns about safety, the security of their homes, and the well-being of their loved ones. Aya fears she may not gain admission to universities that offer the quality of education she desires, while Alaa struggles to envision her future in computer science amidst the ongoing uncertainty of the war’s progression.

Students to the Frontlines

The past weeks have seen a wave of pro-Palestine rallies by university students across the nation, who are demanding financial transparency and calling for divestment from corporations with links to Israel.

Early in May, hundreds of students gathered on various university campuses in Lebanon, proudly waving the Palestinian flag and voicing their demands.

These protests followed larger global demonstrations the previous week, where students persevered through violence and repression. The global wave of student protests in support of Palestine underscores a plea for an end to the seven-month-long Israeli genocide in Gaza.

The movement gained momentum, particularly on US university campuses, where over 2,000 individuals have been arrested – at the time of writing – for participating in demonstrations. Notably, protest encampments at Columbia University, Harvard, and the University of California, Los Angeles, among others, saw significant police interventions. At Columbia University alone, police arrested around 282 individuals, with administrators threatening suspension.

Thalia Kattoura, president of the Secular Club at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and one of the local protest organizers, told Fanack that their demands include financial transparency regarding AUB’s investments, and boycotting Hewlett Packard which provides technology and services to the Israeli army.

“We’re still awaiting a response from the administration,” Kattoura said.

However, if the administration remains unresponsive, Kattoura stated they would escalate their actions.

“We will directly confront the administration and hope to inspire other universities to follow suit. It’s our duty as students to stand up for Palestine and refuse to be silenced as a genocide continues to unfold,” she said.

Kattoura underlines the responsibility of privileged students, particularly those in safe areas like Beirut, to engage in political discourse and raise awareness about the ongoing atrocities, especially in southern Lebanon where little media attention is given.

“Universities are not just places of education but also spaces for cultural, social, and political expression, growth, and awareness. An entire generation is shaped here, which will later impact society,” she said.

She highlights the potential for these movements to expand beyond university campuses, mobilizing a broader community to support Palestine.

Kattoura worries about the situation of students in southern Lebanon, warning of its potential to exacerbate social inequality and further isolate the region. While south Lebanon was known under the Ottoman Empire as “Jabal Amel,” it was characterized by poverty, isolation, and hostility by the Ottoman state and local neighbors.

“History might repeat itself, and students’ futures and prospects in life remain at stake. We must act,” she cautioned.

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