Rising poverty forces Syrian parents to choose between children’s schooling and survival

Some young people have no choice but to become laborers to earn money and help their families. (AFP)
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Updated 04 October 2023
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Rising poverty forces Syrian parents to choose between children’s schooling and survival

  • Economic collapse has made textbooks, uniforms and stationery unaffordable for many impoverished households
  • “Lost generation” feared as conflict, earthquakes and spending cuts leave schools damaged and underfunded

LONDON: Syria’s dire economic situation has forced students from impoverished backgrounds to miss school this year, as families cut back on expenses and try to shore up household incomes by sending their children to work instead.

Schools in government-held areas of Syria reopened in September after the summer break, welcoming back an estimated 3.7 million children, according to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency. However, many others did not show up.

Among those marked as absent were children who had no other choice but to become laborers to earn money and help their families make ends meet as Syrians grapple with a devastating and unprecedented economic crisis.

In an attempt to prevent children from being deprived of their right to education, and ensure they are not forced into exploitative child labor, civil society groups have established projects designed to help vulnerable students continue their studies.

For example, Mart Team, a charity in Damascus, has launched a campaign called “Aqlamouna Amalouna” — which translates as “Hope in our pens” — to support struggling primary school students.




In an attempt to prevent children from being deprived of their right to education, civil society groups have established projects designed to help vulnerable students continue their studies. (AFP)

“After conducting a study to investigate why many students in grades one to six were not attending school, we found that a major factor was the soaring costs of stationery and educational supplies,” Marwan Alrez, the general manager of Mart Team, told Arab News.

“Parents have told us schools demand hefty fees and charges, prompting many of them to remove their children from school and force them into the labor market in order to contribute to the household earnings.”

Donya Abo Alzahab, who has been teaching a second-grade class at a primary school in Damascus for a year, notices how desperate the situation has become for many of her young students, to say nothing of their teachers.

“I was thrilled to start my first job as a schoolteacher,” she told Arab News. “Little did I know it would prove to be a costly, significant challenge, given the lack of much-needed support and teaching aids.”

With some students lagging behind their peers by as much as three years in terms of learning, teachers such as Alzahab often find themselves compelled to spend a substantial portion of their own modest incomes on essential teaching aids, including textbooks, which are not cheap at a time when the value of the nation’s currency has fallen to record lows.




Syria’s dire economic situation has forced students from impoverished backgrounds to miss school this year. (AFP)

Alrez said the average cost of educational supplies for a single primary school student is at least 200,000 Syrian pounds (approximately $16); a backpack alone can cost 100,000 pounds. If schools fail to provide students with textbooks, these can cost parents an additional 50,000 pounds.

Such costs are increasingly out of the reach of many public-sector employees, whose minimum monthly salaries were only recently increased to 185,940 Syrian pounds. At the same time, the government slashed fuel subsidies, sparking rare protests in southern Syria.

Alzahab, who holds a degree in special educational needs, said transport costs alone can exceed 80,000 pounds per month, equivalent to almost half her salary. She also spends 30,000 pounds on teaching aids and 15,000 for a teacher’s planner that has to be replaced every month.

“The only reason why I won’t quit my job is the students, she said. “If I resign, they will be left for a long period without a replacement.”

FASTFACT

• 3.7m Syrian students returned to school in government-held areas in September.

• Economic crisis has made schooling too expensive for many households.

• Some children have become laborers to help provide for their families.

Such a gap in their education would be devastating for her pupils’ learning outcomes, which in many cases are already behind schedule. Of the 30 students in her class, 20 are unable read or write.

A recent report by UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, titled “Every Day Counts,” revealed that in 2022, about 2.4 million children in Syria were not in school and an additional 1.6 million were at risk of dropping out.

According to a subsequent UNICEF report covering the period from January to March this year, the figures have not improved. Furthermore, the share of the national budget allocated by the Syrian government to education fell from 7.1 percent in 2021 to 3.6 percent in 2022.

UNICEF estimates that the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, has damaged or destroyed 7,000 schools across the country. This situation was compounded by the devastating twin earthquakes that hit parts of northern Syria and southern Turkiye on Feb. 6 this year.




UNICEF estimates that the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, has damaged or destroyed 7,000 schools across the country. (AFP)

The UN agency warned of the danger of a generation of young children who have never gone to school and “will face difficulties in enrolling and adjusting in formal schooling as they grow older.”

Until the economic crisis in the country is brought under control, however, many households will continue to prioritize survival over schooling.

“Syria’s children are quite often faced with a dilemma: whether to support their families to survive or continue their education,” Hamzah Barhameyeh, the advocacy and communication manager at World Vision, an international child-focused charity, told Arab News.

“The Syrian conflict has decimated the education infrastructure and the earthquake has compounded the crisis, leaving schools in need of rehabilitation and school supplies, which in turn has made the choice between education and child labor a much easier decision.”

Alrez highlighted the importance of supporting schoolchildren because “this generation is Syria’s future.”




A UNICEF report says that in 2022, about 2.4 million children in Syria were not in school. (AFP)

His charity’s initiative has so far succeeded in meeting the needs of about 300 primary school pupils in parts of Rif Dimashq, including Maaraba and Sbeneh, neighborhoods of Ghouta such as Zamalka, and the outskirts of Damascus.

The Syrian government has said it recognizes the struggles many students and their families face and is trying to help. The Ministry of Education has urged schools to be lenient when enforcing policies on the wearing of uniforms, for example, according to a report by SANA.

The ministry also called on schools to cut their demands for certain supplies, wherever feasible, to alleviate the burden on poverty-stricken families, at least in part.

Such modest measures are unlikely to make a significant dent, however, given that 90 percent of the Syrian population now lives below the poverty line. Even teachers in government-held areas, such as Alzahab, are struggling to do their jobs despite being innovative and resourceful wherever possible.

The situation is hardly any better for children in parts of Syria outside the government’s control. The earthquakes in February largely affected opposition-held regions in the northwest, where facilities for children had already deteriorated on account of the conflict.

At least 450 schools in the northwest were “damaged to varying degrees” by the earthquakes, according to a report published in April by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Thousands more have been damaged or destroyed during more than 12 years of civil war, which has been particularly destructive in the northwest of the country.

World Vision currently has six educational projects operating in northwestern Syria, Barhameyeh said, focusing on “school rehabilitation, educational centers, school winterization and teacher training.”

He added: “Those projects also include a livelihood intervention (program) that provides food packages, hygiene kits, school supplies and, in some instances, cash vouchers to reduce families’ need to send their children to work.”

Still, the task of filling up classrooms remains an uphill battle, especially given that more than 1.7 million children in northwestern Syria rely on humanitarian assistance.

“The food crisis and recent cuts to World Food Program programs are actively pushing young boys to head to the labor market and drop out of schools,” said Barhameyeh. “This will have a devastating impact on the future of the Syrian children.”


Netanyahu says he will pave way to end exemption for ultra-Orthodox from military service

Updated 01 March 2024
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Netanyahu says he will pave way to end exemption for ultra-Orthodox from military service

  • Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up 13 percent of Israel’s population, claim the right to study in seminaries instead of serving in uniform for the standard three years
  • Israel’s Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, citing a need for the burden of military service to be shared across Israeli society

JERUSALEM: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday his government would find a way to end exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews from Israeli military service in the face of political pressures that threaten his narrow coalition’s future.
“We will determine goals for conscripting ultra-Orthodox people to the IDF and national civil service,” Netanyahu said at a press conference, referring to the Israel Defense Forces. “We will also determine the ways to implement those goals.”
Israel’s Supreme Court in 2018 voided a law waiving the draft for ultra-Orthodox men, citing a need for the burden of military service to be shared across Israeli society.
Parliament failed to come up with a new arrangement, and a government-issued stay on mandatory conscription of ultra-Orthodox expires in March.
Ultra-Orthodox parties have helped Netanyahu hold a narrow parliamentary majority alongside far-right nationalist parties but in past governments have made draft exemption a condition for remaining in the coalition.
Netanyahu appeared to be responding to a pledge made by his defense minister to veto a law that would allow the continuation of exemptions unless the government reached an agreement paving a path for ultra-Orthodox enlistment.
“We recognize and support those who dedicate their life to studying Jewish holy scripture but, with that, without physical existence there is no spiritual existence,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said on Wednesday.
The exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews have been a longstanding source of friction with more secular citizens now stoked by the country’s costly mobilization for the Gaza war.
The ultra-Orthodox claim the right to study in seminaries instead of serving in uniform for the standard three years. Some say their pious lifestyles would clash with military mores, while others voice ideological opposition to the liberal state.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up 13 percent of Israel’s population, a figure expected to reach 19 percent by 2035 due to their high birth rates. Economists argue that the draft exemption keeps some of them unnecessarily in seminaries and out of the workforce.


‘Mercy tables’ in Egypt suffer from economic crisis as Ramadan nears

Updated 29 February 2024
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‘Mercy tables’ in Egypt suffer from economic crisis as Ramadan nears

CAIRO: Rising food prices and shortages may lead to fewer donations and less food for “tables of mercy” in Egypt during Ramadan.

Such tables are usually seen on Egypt’s streets to provide lower-income people with free iftar.

“There are many philanthropists in Egypt, but the high prices of food items constrain them,” said Kamal Khairy, a cook who worked at the tables in previous years.

A kilogram of meat is now priced at 450 Egyptian pounds ($14.56) in some areas, while a kilogram of rice costs 40 pounds. The price of vegetables has risen to unreasonable levels, Khairy told Arab News.

The meal cost has increased significantly, causing some philanthropists to withdraw from setting up tables this year.

“Before the COVID-19 outbreak, I used to cook at different tables upon request by philanthropists,” he said.

“In one year, I cooked for three tables — one in the morning, another in the afternoon, and the third before sunset. However, no one has asked me this year.”

A 50-year-old Egyptian, who declined to be named, told Arab News: “In previous years, I used to set up a free iftar table near my factory in Al-Azhar. However, I cannot afford the extra expense due to financial constraints this year.”

He said the factory was struggling financially, so he had been cutting expenses.

A car park attendant on Hoda Shaarawi Street in Cairo who gave his name as Uncle Ahmed told Arab News: “Due to the nature of my job, I cannot go home during Ramadan. Therefore, I rely on the ‘mercy table’ set up on the street, where I am a regular guest.”

The man, nearing 60, added: “I used to sit at a table alongside people from diverse social backgrounds, such as delivery workers, nurses, conscripts, and passersby.

“The table used to accommodate more than 500 people but now fits only 50.”

He said that in the past, a meal would typically consist of a meat dish (such as chicken or kofta), a vegetable dish, a salad and rice or pasta.

“There is only one dish that contains rice and vegetables this year, and the size of the chicken and meat has been reduced. Additionally, the salad portion has been reduced."

Ahmed added: “The crisis affects everyone, and we don’t expect more from the philanthropists. I excuse them.

“I pray that our crises in Egypt will be resolved.”

Farid Jamal, a worker at a charity hosting a table, said: “In previous years, people would arrive an hour before the Maghrib prayer, but now they come three hours earlier.

“The social composition has also changed. I see young men and men from good social levels wearing relatively elegant clothes and women who appear to be in a good situation, all reserving their places at the table to get an iftar meal.”


Volunteers brave Israeli air raids to feed Lebanon’s stranded pets

Updated 29 February 2024
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Volunteers brave Israeli air raids to feed Lebanon’s stranded pets

  • Tyre resident recounts heartbreaking scenes in abandoned towns

BEIRUT: Volunteers in southern Lebanon are defying Israeli bombing to feed and care for dogs, cats, birds and other animals that have become victims of the conflict.

Linda Luku — a native of Bint Jbeil now residing in Tyre — is among a growing number of volunteers who have mobilized via social media to support animals amid the military escalation between Hezbollah and Israel.

Their efforts provide a lifeline to the forgotten victims of war as clashes continue to claim the lives of Hezbollah operatives and Lebanese civilians, including innocent children and women.

Amid the clashes between Hezbollah and the Israeli army, thousands of residents of the border region in southern Lebanon have abandoned their homes and villages in recent months.

In heartbreaking decisions, many families opted to leave their cherished pets behind, hoping that their displacement would be short-lived.

With military operations escalating and airstrikes pounding the region, villages have been transformed into desolate ghost towns, leaving animals abandoned and vulnerable to starvation and bombing.

Luku recounted the heartbreaking scenes she encountered during a visit to her hometown of Bint Jbeil.

Stray cats and dogs — emaciated and desperate — roamed the streets, their suffering palpable as their ribs protruded from hunger.

The sight was particularly harrowing for Luku, who, moved by compassion, set out with her brother on a mission to provide relief.

They managed to secure leftover chicken from a local slaughterhouse in Maaroub owned by a friend, and then journeyed to their hometown to distribute food to the starving animals.

“These animals are not strays. They belong to beautiful breeds commonly kept as household pets. They are now left to fend for themselves, searching for sustenance in towns abandoned by humans,” Luku said.

She added: “It is a poignant scene. As I navigate through these towns, I am confronted with the sight of starving animals, and the distressing images linger with me through the night.

“Amid the conflict, there is a heartbreaking lack of awareness. Residents remaining in villages under bombardment often withhold food from these animals.”

“Many times, I traverse villages devoid of human presence, with only Israeli warplanes hovering above, surveilling the area.”

Qassem Haidar, 28, from Shaqra in southern Lebanon, still lives in the area with his family despite facing constant bombardment.

“I have my own business, yet I sympathize with animals,” he said, adding: “I started feeding animals in my village after I was shocked to see a dog eating a cat in Beit Leif. It was so horrible. I could not stand it.

“I resorted to social media, asking anyone who had food leftovers to keep them, taking it upon myself to collect and distribute them to abandoned animals.

“I took photos of the hungry animals and posted them online. Many showed sympathy, and I started receiving donations, from dry food bags to gasoline costs, to move around between the villages.

“I also reached out to animal welfare organizations. I dedicate three hours of my time every day to going around the villages and posting stories on Instagram.

“I visited every village in the border area, from Ayta Al-Shaab to Kfarkela, spending a few minutes in some due to the bombardment and more than an hour in others.

Haidar said: “I used to leave food on the sides of the roads. Sometimes, if I come across a civilian still in his house, I leave bags of food at his place so that he can feed the animals.

“I also cooperate with the medics in the region to distribute food to animals. I have a town visit schedule, and I know when I should return and visit them to leave food for the animals.

“I don’t want to be late, so they do not starve to death or eat each other. I have seen cats and dogs that died of cardiac arrest due to the sound of exploding shells. Their heartbeats were so fast. They experienced absolute terror.

“They know when a shell is about to drop, and they disperse before it does. I followed their instincts and survived bombings more than once. Israelis bombed the sites I was at in many towns five minutes after I left them.

“I often used to be the only person on the road in towns in the line of fire. My mother is always worried about me. However, I am convinced these lives cannot be abandoned,” he added.

Haidar’s mission goes beyond feeding dogs, cats, and birds. He also takes sick or wounded animals to local vets.

Firas Faraj, a founder of the Strays Welfare Association in Tyre, said that many of the pets left behind are waiting for their owners to return.

He added: “We do not have an accurate number of abandoned animals, yet we are dealing with the problem case by case.

“The issue has gained some sympathy, but the need is still greater than what is provided. UNIFIL forces previously sympathized with us since the unit commanders love animals and provided us access to a field hospital.

“However, with the opening of the southern battlefront, all aid was suspended, and we rely on individual initiatives.”


El-Sisi, Al-Burhan discuss developments in Sudan

Updated 29 February 2024
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El-Sisi, Al-Burhan discuss developments in Sudan

  • Al-Burhan said that Egypt’s role in hosting Sudanese citizens and mitigating the crisis provided evidence of its continued friendship
  • El-Sisi and Al-Burhan agreed on the necessity of an immediate ceasefire in Gaza

CAIRO: Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi on Thursday received Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, president of the Transitional Sovereignty Council of Sudan, at Cairo International Airport.

An official reception ceremony took place at Al-Ittihadiya Palace, at which the national anthems were played and guards of honor inspected.

The meeting focused on recent developments in Sudan and efforts to resolve its crisis.

The main goal is to restore stability while ensuring sovereignty, unity, and cohesion of the Sudanese state and its institutions.

The meeting was an attempt to meet the Sudanese people’s desire for safety and stability.

Ahmed Fahmy, the presidential spokesman, said that El-Sisi focused on the solid historic relations between the two countries, emphasizing Egypt’s support in enhancing cooperation.

The president stressed Egypt’s commitment to Sudan’s security and offered full support to achieve political, security, and economic stability.

He affirmed Egypt’s commitment to supporting Sudan’s unity and resolving ongoing conflicts.

He added that the two countries shared a close relationship, which made it necessary to ensure national security.

The president spoke of Egypt’s ongoing role in helping to alleviate the humanitarian impact of the current crisis within Sudan.

Al-Burhan expressed his country’s appreciation for Egypt’s support. He highlighted the long-standing ties between the two countries, while saying that Egypt’s role in hosting Sudanese citizens and mitigating the crisis provided evidence of its continued friendship.

The parties also discussed the situation in Gaza and regional issues of mutual concern.

El-Sisi and Al-Burhan agreed on the necessity of an immediate ceasefire and the urgent need to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza.

They also agreed to continue consultations and coordination to help benefit the populations of Egypt and Sudan.

The Sudanese leader made an official visit to Egypt in August last year, his first following the start of his country’s conflict in April. Al-Burhan and El-Sisi met in the city of Alamein in northern Egypt.


Palestinian president issues ‘categorical rejection’ of Israeli PM’s post-war plan

Updated 29 February 2024
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Palestinian president issues ‘categorical rejection’ of Israeli PM’s post-war plan

  • Netanyahu wants Israel to retain security control over Palestinian areas and make reconstruction dependent on demilitarization
  • Abbas charged that the plan confirmed the Israeli government’s intentions to recolonize the Gaza Strip

CAIRO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has stressed “categorical Palestinian rejection” of the principles announced in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s so-called post-war plan for Gaza.

Netanyahu wants Israel to retain security control over Palestinian areas and make reconstruction dependent on demilitarization.

His plan, which brings together a range of well-established Israeli positions, underlines Netanyahu’s resistance to the creation of a Palestinian state which he sees as a security threat.

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit has received a written message from Abbas which calls for a global conference to adopt a comprehensive peace plan with international guarantees and a timeline for implementation of the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories.

Abbas has called on the league to support Palestine in obtaining full membership of the UN.

The message urged countries that have not yet recognized Palestine to do so.

Aboul Gheit received Ambassador Muhannad Al-Aklouk, representative of Palestine to the bloc, at the headquarters of the general secretariat, and Al-Aklouk had brought a message from Abbas.

Jamal Rushdi, a spokesperson for the Arab League chief, said that the president’s message included a categorical Palestinian rejection of the principles announced by the Israeli prime minister for the so-called “day after of the war.”

The message included a warning of the danger of those principles — especially the denial of the existence of the Palestinian people, and insisting on imposing Israeli sovereignty on the land extending from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River.

Abbas charged that the plan confirmed the Israeli government’s intentions to recolonize the Gaza Strip and perpetuate the occupation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem through plans to build thousands of settlement units.

Rushdi said that the message warned that the goal of the Israeli government was not only to undermine the chances of peace based on the two-state solution, but also to intensify ethnic cleansing and displacement of Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

The president’s message included the affirmation that the Gaza Strip is an integral part of the State of Palestine.

The Palestinian Authority is ready to assume the responsibilities of governance in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, and is prepared to work toward establishing security and peace, as well as stability, in the region within the framework of a comprehensive peace plan.

The message called on the Arab League’s chief to continue working for a ceasefire; the provision of humanitarian aid; the return of displaced people to their homes in the north; the prevention of their displacement; and a halt to Israel’s expansionist plans and practices in the Gaza Strip.

Aboul Gheit confirmed to Al-Aklouk that he would continue to work to achieve all the goals highlighted in the president’s message — most notably an immediate ceasefire, working to bring aid in urgently and sustainably, and standing with full force against the displacement plan.

Aboul Gheit stressed that stopping the war remained a fundamental priority for the Arab League and its member states.

He reiterated that the Palestinians, Arabs, and the world always rejected the displacement plan.

Aboul Gheit pointed out that addressing the humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israeli aggression could not be achieved in isolation from a settlement aiming at the emergence of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

He emphasized that the Palestinians were capable of governing themselves.

Aboul Gheit added that the continuation of the occupation was no longer possible and that the two-state solution remained the only formula capable of achieving security, peace, and stability between Palestinians and Israelis in the region and the world.