Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?
The toll on education


In this episode we tackle education, and find out how the economic crisis is affecting students. We speak to Michelle and Fatima, students at the Lebanese University. We also hear from Hassan Jaafar, the headmaster of a public school in the Bekaa Valley, who tells us why he feels he failed his students. And philosophy teacher Boushra Saab talks about the mental health crisis she has witnessed in Lebanon's public schools. 

"Lebanon: should I stay or should I go?" podcast is produced by Sowt for Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform, and it is the story of a nation's collapse as told by its own people.

This episode was produced by Tareq Ayoub and Basant Samhout, hosted by Nazih Osseiran. Sound Design by Siham Arous. Editorial support by Rana Daoud. The show's Executive Producer is Nada Issa. Original score is composed by Firas Abou Fakher.

Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.


Nazih: This podcast was produced before and during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and South Lebanon.

Boushra: I was teaching in a girls’ school. Most of them were on the verge of suicide. They talked about it all the time.

Hassan: The situation is very, very difficult. The economic crisis made everything worse.

Fatima: The professors had passion to teach you and there was enough facilities for your education. Nowadays, it’s very hard to reach college. Nowadays there’s no facilities. You will have no electricity.

Nazih: Over the last four years, Lebanon, my country has suffered one of the biggest economic meltdowns the world has seen in more than a century. Our currency has lost more than 90% of its value. Our annual inflation in 2023 is more than 250%. As each day passes, people have less and less, while everything costs more and more. Food, medicine, electricity, even water. So what are our options? Well, those who have the means to leave the country are leaving. And the rest of us? Do we wait and hope that things are going to get better? Or do we figure out how to get out of here for better opportunities elsewhere? What happens to those of us who can’t leave or have nowhere to go? I am Nazih Osseiran Middle East correspondent for Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform. And this is “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” A podcast about how this country’s crisis is hitting its most vulnerable people, and how they are grappling with the choice of staying here or leaving.

Nazih: As Lebanon’s financial and living situation continues to decline, Lebanese children are losing out. Teachers on strike, schools unable to afford basic supplies. Families unable to afford tuition or transport fees. In this episode, we delve into Lebanon’s education sector, talking to teachers and students about the failing education system. Hassan Jaafar is a headmaster at Al-Qanafiz, a public school in Hermel in the Bekaa Valley. He has also been teaching for over 35 years.

Hassan: Education is a message, a profession and an art. Of course now with the economic crisis, education has become commercialized. It’s become a business focused on money and profit rather than teaching and learning. Education is no longer an art and lacks a message.

Nazih: How has the economic crisis and social unrest affected your teaching and your students?

Hassan: There’s a huge negative impact on the quality of education, especially in marginalized areas. Teachers make around 200.. 300,000 lira an hour. So they amount to about 10 million lira per month. How many dollars is that per month? Barely enough to cover their basic expenses and they have to travel to work. They simply can’t afford the cost of petrol. Then you have substitute teachers who are also undervalued and have seen their hourly rates cut. It wasn’t much to begin with, but now it’s tragic.

Nazih: 10 million pounds is equivalent to around $112. I asked Hassan, what are some of the challenges the students and parents are facing?

Hassan: The financial aspect is huge. They can’t afford the cost of books or stationery. They can’t afford the administrative fees, let alone the rising tuition fees. They can’t even afford the bus and this affects their education. The parents are struggling financially. They are barely making ends meet before the crisis. Now they’re on their knees. And the students aged between 7 and 18 are even more affected by the crisis than their parents. They can see their parents struggles, and they know they can’t afford to send them to school. All of this has an emotional and psychological impact on our students.

Nazih: In 2022, almost a third of the young people were not getting education or vocational training. Enrolment in schools and universities dwindled, dropping from 60% in 2021 to less than 43% in 2022. Today, most of the kids who do manage to get to school are at least a year or two behind the grade level at which they’re supposed to be.

Hassan: In our school, we worked hard to eliminate school dropouts. What we used to do was help some students however we could, including transportation when we had the resources. But now we no longer have the finances or the resources to provide that support. You can say we’re experiencing about 20% of school dropouts, if not more. With the other schools in the area, the numbers are higher, 30%, maybe even 40.

Nazih: Do you think this creates more tension or anxiety among young people?

Hassan: There is a spike in their anxieties and frustrations from all the instability we have, and this can lead to social violence. It’s a cycle which starts at home. For example, the student at home sees their parents struggling to make ends meet. They carry this with them to school. At school, they see frustrated teachers trying to help their students, but with limited resources. All this has an impact on a child coupled with the uncertainties of their futures. So it’s not surprising if they lash out or even become violent.

Nazih: And how is this impacting your ability as a teacher to provide quality education?

Hassan: It’s been quite hard. Some students reach the ninth grade, despite the fact that they are unable to write. Other than the economic crisis, the covid pandemic had its impact as well. Before the crisis, I would teach students in the ninth grade and really see their growth mentally, emotionally and academically. But today, there’s no quality education and the pressure they’re under is stunting their development.

Nazih: You’ve taught many students, some of whom have become engineers and doctors and have migrated for job opportunities. As a teacher with 35 years of experience, do you ever think you’ve had enough and you just want to throw in the towel? Do you ever think of leaving Lebanon?

Hassan: I love this profession. I will never stop or change my career. It’s part of who I am, and I still have another 3 or 4 years left in me before retirement. I don’t see myself leaving Lebanon, even if I could turn back time to when I had an opportunity to migrate, I still wouldn’t. Despite Lebanon’s difficult circumstances and even before the economic crisis, I would never contemplate leaving Lebanon. I love my land.

Nazih: In one way or another. Do you feel like you’ve been betrayed by the government, or that you’ve been lied to?

Hassan: They didn’t just lie to us. They exploited us. Of course I’ve been betrayed. But the whole country was betrayed. Not just me.

Nazih: As an educator. Do you feel like you have failed somewhere?

Hassan: To be frank. Yes, I failed. The person who becomes a teacher is a special person because they know there is no monetary reward. The reward comes from doing your duty and raising the children of your community. But when you do that and then fail, not because of your performance, but because the system you are working in works against you, then I feel like I’ve been conned. We used to consider our country to be the most beautiful in the Middle East. It turned out to be the most miserable country.

Nazih: Hassan is determined to stay in the country. But my next guest, Boushra, has decided to leave Lebanon and settle in Germany. For more than a decade, Boushra's job has taken her from one corner of the country to another. She taught philosophy in state funded high schools.

Boushra: The biggest trauma, I think, was working for the Ministry of Education. It is a trauma. At the ministry there is a lack of respect. You’re not even treated like a human being. They don’t care. There is no stability. There is no security. In practical terms, this means that the schools are underfunded, the teachers are underpaid, the quality of education is declining, and the staff are sometimes too scared to speak up for fear of losing their jobs. When I arrived in Germany, honestly, I saw how the education system ran and the respect they have for staff. I realized the extent of just how dysfunctional Lebanon’s education system is.

ARCHIVE: *Demonstrations*

Nazih: Tens of thousands of Lebanese came out against corruption in 2019. Angry at the country’s political elite who had ruled since the end of the civil war more than 30 years ago. Many of those protesters were students. There were reports that the Ministry of Education had instructed teachers to put pressure on students to abandon the protests and return to class.

Boushra: That was a huge mistake, because that was an enormous amount of psychological pressure put on students on a daily basis. I was teaching in a girls school back then. The girls, mostly, most of them, were on the verge of suicide. They talked about it all the time.

Nazih: Bushra explains that the students were concerned over the rise in living costs, stressed from seeing their country erupt into chaos. Helpless as they watched their parents struggle to make ends meet. All of which impacted their mental health. She now regrets complying with the ministry’s instructions to pressure and return the students to the classroom, as this only worsened their psychological state.

Boushra: I lost two colleagues to suicide and one student. I think other teachers would tell you also of cases where this happened. If you go back to the news, you’d see like parents who are committing suicide, students were attempting suicide at least, and teachers. The joy and hope were replaced by total despair. It is not just the economic aspect, like people focus on the economic aspect, but it is really like total lack of respect for the human being. You are not a human being, especially as a student. Like this is the case for teachers. This is the case for parents. This is the case for everyone. But especially as a student, you are not a human being. For the Ministry of Education, a number.

ARCHIVE: News Segment: Large parts of Beirut are in ruins tonight, and the people of Lebanon are attempting to assess the catastrophic damage and the rising human toll from a blast that shook the capital.

Nazih: And then came August 4th, 2020. The explosion many of you might have seen on TV, the one that left no Beiruti home untouched, including mine.

ARCHIVE: News Segment: They’re among the more than 220 people who died in one of the largest ever non-nuclear explosions three years ago.

Nazih: A large amount of ammonium nitrate stored at the port of Beirut blew up. It was one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in modern history that killed more than 200 people, injured more than 7000, and made 300,000 temporarily homeless.

Boushra: I was severely injured. I had one major operation, and I also know at least one colleague who was even more severely injured than myself. First of all, it was very shocking. But nobody ever talked about the injured students, teachers, parents and needless to say, nobody talked about the psychological trauma of the kids or the adults who lived in the areas affected by the explosion. The Minister of Education didn’t even bother taking into consideration that some schools were still damaged, and some teachers were still unable to teach. My colleague was on a wheelchair. The school didn’t have any classes on the ground floor.

Nazih: The trauma lingers on, Boushra tells me, in the lives of teachers and students even today. But in spite of it all, she kept teaching until finally deciding to move abroad. But after having gone through so much, even when you physically leave, can you ever really completely leave?

Boushra: I’ve been out of the country for three years now, but I’m still kind of in. I still follow up very closely on everything that happens. I’m still in contact with my ex-students. I still follow up with student movements. I still visit the schools frequently.

Michelle: I always knew that I was going to go to the Lebanese university because it’s a good university, but also it’s all my parents could afford.

Nazih: 19-year-old Michelle Fighale is studying theatre at the Lebanese University. It’s the country’s only state funded public university. Well, state funded until recently. With no money coming in from the state, the Lebanese university is now student funded. In 2023, for the first time since it was founded in 1951, students were asked to pay tuition. In the past, students were charged a nominal administrative fee that amounted to $10, but now they’re being asked to shell out more than 14 times that amount, $145 per year, which is prohibitively expensive for many.

Michelle: We didn’t have a lot of chairs to sit. We don’t have electricity. Sometimes, for example, I used to take my classes in the garden while someone has to do it in the class because they need a classroom to take a class. The toilets would flood, so we’d have to walk in the sewage water, which was kind of disgusting. There is a lot of cockroaches, flies, mosquitoes a lot, a lot, a lot of them. The windows after the explosion, the windows bombed. So they didn’t fix it yet. So in winter when it’s raining, the class would also flood in water.

Nazih: The conditions you describe sound very challenging, but how is the situation on an academic level? What are your professors like?

Michelle: Our doctors are next to us, so when I feel mentally unstable and unhealthy, I can go to my doctor and tell them I’m not mentally okay. I don’t know what’s going on in my life. I’m working a lot. I’m studying a lot. I love what I do. It’s not like I’m obliged to do theatre. I’m in love with theatre. But you arrive at a point where you don’t know what to do. I’m working in the theatre as stage manager. I’m working as an usher, assistant director, light designer, a lot of stuff. I’m also babysitting. I do entertainment for the kids. I clown for anniversaries. You don’t know where you are. You’ll be like, I need to work. I need to study. I need to sleep. I need to eat. But there’s no time for this. So what can I do?

Nazih: And how many hours are you working each week?

Michelle: I cannot count them. The day is 24 hours. I can say I work 25 hours in a day.

Nazih: It sounds like you and your peers are dealing with so much at the moment. From everything that’s happening in the country to working to pay school fees and studying for your degree, that’s a lot for any person. Does it wear you down? 

Michelle: At once? I was really, really mentally down. I had my final exams. I was working a lot because I need the money to live. That’s how people live. My brain blocked. I didn’t know how to continue. I had an exam to perform on stage, so I took a character and I have no idea what to do. I start to freak out. And then I went to one of my doctors and I told him, I’m blocked. I don’t know what to do. I have a lot on my mind, a lot on my plate. I can’t handle things anymore, so what can I do? He told me, just take two days off.

I love Lebanon. Lebanon is an amazing country. If I’m gonna leave, then who’s gonna be next to my country? No, I’m going to help my country to be better. To be a better place.

Nazih: Explosions and financial and societal collapse have defined the lives of students in Lebanon. 35-year-old Fatima Dirani has been trying to finish her English Literature degree for four years now, but hasn’t able to do so because of everything you’ve heard about so far. She also works full time to make ends meet, teaching at the primary school in Beirut.

Fatima: And the Lebanese University before the economic crisis. Each year we had more than 160 students this year. Imagine that out of 160 students, we became four students in the class, out of 160 or 165.

Nazih: From 160 students in a class to four. How come?

Fatima: Depression, I think. Yeah. You’re depressed. We should take anti-anxiety medicines in order to continue our days. There’s a big problem in our educational system as a whole. I’m not only talking about college. You’re talking about schools as well.

Nazih: Lebanon’s education system was once renowned in the region. In fact, in 2018, the World Economic Forum ranked at 18th in the world in terms of quality of education after Denmark. But that was then. In the last two years alone, only two months of teaching took place, leaving students sitting at home without access to education. The government has resorted to cancelling nationwide official examinations on several occasions because of the political and economic crisis. Passing these exams is a requirement to graduate middle school and high school. Gifted students often use them to showcase their skills and land coveted scholarships in private universities and schools. Many complained that cancelling the exams may have ruined their chances of going to college.

Nazih: Thanks for listening to this episode of “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” Special thanks to our guests for sharing their experience. If you like what you just heard, subscribe to our podcast on your preferred podcast or music apps. Tell your family and friends about us, and don’t forget to leave us a rating on Castbox and Apple Podcasts. This episode is produced and written by Tareq Ayoub and Basant Samhout. Voiceover by Hussein Badr. Sound designed by Siham Arous with music by Firas Abu Fakher. Nada Issa is our executive producer. “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” is a production of Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform, and Sowt podcasts. If you want to send us feedback, you can email us at contact at contacts dot news or follow us on Twitter or Instagram at Context newsroom. I’m Nazih Osseiran in Beirut. See you next week.

podcasts. If you want to send us feedback, you can email us at contact at contacts dot news or follow us on Twitter or Instagram at Context newsroom. I’m Nazih Osseiran in Beirut. See you next week.