Since the start of the uprising in Syria in 2011, Lebanon has experienced a mass influx of refugees. This influx made Lebanon home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees of which 488,000 of them are of school age. The country’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) in Lebanon took a laudable leadership role in ensuring that all vulnerable girls and boys in Lebanon including refugees have access to affordable education opportunities through the Reach All Children with Education (RACE) plan. UNICEF has been MEHE’s leading technical and financial partner in the implementation of the above strategy. This plan was put into action in 2014 before a series of calamities happened that have upended the ability of the government to educate. Today, the education sector, particularly for vulnerable communities like Syrian refugees, has been debilitated due to the economic crisis, the lack of emergency planning on a government level, and the paralyzing consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. This article explores where the RACE plan stands today and to what extent Syrian refugee students’ education have been impacted as a consequence of a triple crisis: an economic collapse, the 4 August explosion, and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which arise in the wake of the severe political incapacity of the Lebanese government, the result of decades of corruption post-civil war, combined with infrastructural breakdown.
To the World, There’s a Pandemic, and to Lebanon, There’s a Plethora of Catastrophes
Three catastrophes are affecting Lebanon, two of which are unique to the country. In 2019, a regulated Ponzi scheme between the government and its Central Bank led people to lose access to their bank deposits following an ongoing claim that the country is cash-strapped for foreign currency. The resulting approximate 80% devaluation of the local lira in the black-market caused massive financial losses for the population.
In 2020, the pandemic that hit the world succeeded in paralyzing most global economies; Lebanon is among the countries that are severely affected by the novel coronavirus, which caused businesses to shut down and unemployment rates to surge under an already defaulted economy.
And then, on 4 August, at 6:07 pm, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions happened at the port of Beirut, destroying much of the city and expanding the physical damages tens of miles outside the capital. The explosion killed more than 200 people. It destroyed buildings, leaving 300,000 people homeless, shattered businesses, and damaged 70 public schools and 50 private schools in Beirut and neighboring areas.
The whole country was affected by these back-to-back catastrophic events that have generated a severe economic crisis in Lebanon, already undermined by infrastructural neglect by a nepotistic and corrupt government. However, those whose lives were most adversely affected are both the Lebanese who are near and below the poverty line and Syrian refugees. The impact was excessive on refugees due to their difficult living circumstances inside unofficial camps, the exploitative practices of some employers who take advantage of the situation to hire refugees illegally for extremely low wages, and their dependency on local and international aid. More importantly, Lebanon is currently witnessing a significant rise in a pre-existing xenophobic ideology that believes that Syrian refugees are to blame for the economic collapse, making the refugees’ lives in displacement even harsher and subjecting them to constant violence and threat.
Virtual Learning with an Absent Virtual Infrastructure
As the global pandemic emerged, the Lebanese government decided to emulate many countries by shifting their education systems to distance learning. This decision was made despite the poor infrastructure such as slow internet speed, power cuts, and households lacking the proper means for virtual learning, like laptops, tablets, or internet-capable phones. As a result of this gap, approximately 200,000 Syrian refugee students who receive their education through RACE were excluded from MEHE’s pandemic plans and ended up losing access to education. The representative of RACE, Sonya El Khoury, countered complaints about the exclusion of refugees by claiming that neither Lebanese nor Syrian students received any education in 2019-2020 due to events that started with the protests in October of 2019 and are still ongoing with the pandemic lockdowns until this day.
NGOs have had varying levels of success in mitigating the consequences of the pandemic depending on the support of their donors, their ability to adapt, and their close collaboration with MEHE. Houda Atassi, the regional manager of the International Humanitarian Relief (IHR) organization, revealed that due to the lack of funds as a result of the pandemic 2,800 Syrian students who are beneficiaries of IHR’s programs were on the verge of losing access to education and experiencing all the social repercussions that follow. IHR used to receive funds from international donors like the Austrian Development Agency ADA, OPEC’s Fund for International Development, the MBC Foundation and a number of private donors. However, organizations and individuals are no longer contributing to IHR since the economy defaulted in Lebanon. According to Atassi, MEHE has left IHR stranded. They refused to support their non-formal schooling project and they denied all IHR’s certification requests for unknown reasons. As a result, IHR finds itself today deserted by donors and unable to create a virtual learning environment for its beneficiaries, essentially abandoning around 2,800 students and tens of jobless teachers from inside the Syrian camps.
In contrast, the Norwegian Relief Council (NRC) that works closely with MEHE and RACE followed a contingency plan that allowed them to provide their Syrian beneficiaries living in camps with internet cards and to migrate to their non-formal education curriculum. The non-formal program is pre-approved by MEHE and RACE to be accessible to families via smartphones using WhatsApp, and the teachers send the students educational videos three times a week. NRC’s education program representative Dima Soughayyar said that the benefits of their program expanded from their 2,000 students to reach the parents as well, given that parents were at home and they were the ones receiving the learning videos. This led to an increase in the caretakers’ engagement with their children’s education.
Another NGO that succeeded in saving the education of 700 Syrian refugee students is a grassroots organization called Sawa for Development and Aid that also works closely with MEHE and RACE. Sawa operates through non-formal education centers in the Bekaa that provide Syrian refugees of neighboring camps with an education that would qualify them to transition into the public system along with other vocational trainings for elder refugees. Doha Adi from Sawa described the situation in the beginning of the pandemic as harrowing. They had to draft multiple scenarios to protect refugee education. They finally came out with a hybrid plan where they would print out the lessons and move their commuting budget towards financing internet solutions, such as buying internet cards in order to top up the parents’ mobile phones. Sawa’s team delivers printed handouts along with internet cards for their students inside the camps and ensures that the students receive their online material via WhatsApp as well.
Between Sawa and NRC, around 3,000 students in non-formal education projects are able to still receive their education without interruption. However, this does not apply to almost 200,000 others who are beneficiaries of the RACE’s second shifts and are left with no solutions.
Are Donors Shifting Priorities?
In the interviews conducted for this article, government and NGO representatives gave conflicting information regarding a shift in the funding priorities of donors. When the RACE plan started in 2013, USD 643 million were allocated for it. For 2019, the donors, UNICEF, UNHCR & a few EU countries, promised funds totaling USD 120 million. El Khoury says that as of March 2020 they received USD 42 million dollars from the aforementioned donors, and nothing since. The agreement between donors and MEHE is that funds would be transferred in installments to the RACE plan’s account through the Ministry of Finance, based on the liquidation of each payment (i.e., once the whole first payment is spent, the next one follows and so on). A source close to both MEHE and a few donors claimed that the main issue behind the delay in submitting installments is because the RACE team refuses to submit spending reports, that would show how the funds are being used. The source argued that these reports do not exist because the money might have been spent in ways that do not align with the initial funding agreements that the donors set with the Lebanese government or MEHE. That leaves donors in front of a dilemma that complicates their work even more.
Despite this situation, El Khoury claims that the main problem impacting the education of Syrian refugees is not the economic crisis in Lebanon. She insists it is the global crisis that the pandemic has caused and the ramifications of the 4 August explosion. “You would think that refugees should be a priority but they’re not. After the blast, much of the support of international donors went to NGOs for the rehab of residences or buildings”, she said. She went on to explain that after nine years of the Syrian conflict, the donors are in what Elkhoury called a “state of fatigue, they are becoming picky about certain requirements and they are re-arranging their interventions.” Meanwhile, UNICEF’s education team in Beirut asserted that “education is and will always be a priority for UNICEF, as it ensures that children’s lives are saved and their right to learn is fulfilled.”
In contrast, Soughayyar from NRC confirmed that they have not noticed any shifts in donors’ priorities that would affect NRC’s education program so far. Similarly, Adi from Sawa, stated that none of their donors have shifted their priorities. Sawa receives funds directly from international donors including the Japanese government. Adi says that their biggest challenge was when the banks started blocking withdrawals. However, their finance team managed to open several bank accounts in different banks, so in case one bank blocks access to funds they would still have a flow in another account.
If You Get Paid in USD, Why Don’t We?
Around mid-November of 2020 MEHE issued an order to resume physical learning on campuses. While the morning shift students resumed their scholastic patterns accordingly, the second shift students did not. Teachers that work the second shifts went on a strike demanding that their salaries be paid in USD since the RACE management receives its funds in USD. RACE’s team explained that teachers’ paychecks are issued by the Ministry of Finance making it impossible to pay them in USD given the government budget is in local currency. Teachers were skeptical of such explanations given RACE’s dependency on foreign currency. The teachers' negotiations failed, and instead, they yielded, and children were able to commence their learning on campus for only a single week before a nationwide lockdown due to COVID-19 forced everyone home again.
El Khoury’s claims were challenged by two public school teachers who work the second shifts. They both preferred to keep their identities confidential for fear of losing their jobs. Both teachers said that before the crisis hit the Lebanese economy, they used to make between 18,000 and 20,000 Liras per hour, which was equivalent to around USD $12. This amount of money is budgeted by MEHE, debited to the RACE plan by UN donors in USD, and later paid to the teachers twice a year in Lebanese Liras through the Ministry of Finance. The teachers claim that the demand for getting paid in USD is not new. Second shift teachers have made this demand since the establishment of the RACE plan. The response they kept getting from MEHE was, “If they do not like what they’re getting they can be replaced.” However, these demands are on the rise now as teachers start to mobilize more intensively, given their hourly wage is now worth USD 2 while MEHE still receives USD $12 per hour from the donors.
This situation, alongside other budget controversies, raises an array of questions about who is responsible for paying wages and how finances are structured. On top of that, such questions lead to skepticism about the RACE plan and its commitment to refugee education given that funds are not fulfilling their allocation purposes. This dilemma is ongoing, and teachers have commenced an open strike as of 12 December that will escalate until MEHE fulfills their demands. Meanwhile, most Syrian refugee students remain out of school.
The Devaluation of the Lebanese Lira
The impact of the devaluation in the local Lebanese currency is reflected in all dimensions of society. The inability of daily workers to earn a salary, mixed with price increases through the sharp devaluation of the Lebanese Lira, and a severely limited social welfare system, put many residents at risk of life-threatening hardship. In 2019, 1 kilogram of apples used to cost anywhere between 750 and 2000 Liras. Today, the same number of locally grown apples are sold between 25,000 to 30,000 Liras. A pack of diapers went up from 22,000 to 149,000 Liras. Basic needs are now out of reach for many, including public school teachers. Conversely, the devaluing has benefited those who still manage to receive their salaries and funds in USD, like the RACE plan that receives its funds from donors through the Ministry of Finance in USD. However, this does not include the RACE teachers, as they continue to get paid in Lira. “When it comes to exchange rates, the donors tell us we are sending funds in USD so benefit from the exchange rate and fill the gap”, said Sonya El Khoury.
With the unofficial devaluation of the Lebanese currency to almost seven times its value back in 2019, the USD 42 million that the program received this year would be worth 294 billion Lebanese liras if exchanged according to the black-market rate which fluctuates between 8,000 and 9,000 for a dollar every day, when the interviews were conducted for this article in December, 2020. Using the official rate issued by the Central Bank, which is 3,900 for a dollar, the amount in Lebanese liras would be 163 billion versus the 63 billion Lebanese liras it was worth until October of 2019. Therefore, despite the claim that donors are temporarily not fulfilling their payments on time, the RACE team should still be capable of operating as close to normalcy as possible given the devaluation of the local currency, the budget available and the fact that they are paying teachers in Lira and not in dollars.
Assertions about difficult relations with donors, as well as teachers’ inability to survive on such depreciated wages, raises an array of questions about the continuity of the plan and most importantly about the responsibility towards Syrian children’s fates and the extent the negative effect can be limited in the case of deterioration.
In the midst of these three calamities, many government officials, organizations, and donors still prioritize their mission of aiding refugees and the importance of educating children. However, in a country whose economy is struggling, there are no guarantees that funds will keep coming or that funds will be accessible in the event that banks default. Most importantly, the public school system bears a heavy burden providing education to the Syrian refugee children and the vulnerable Lebanese communities due to the insufficient number of campuses and teachers, as well as vagueness around the RACE budget’s spending. With the three calamities, Syrian refugee children are forced into more instability. As Doha Adi from Sawa mentioned, some of their students have already surrendered to the economic crisis and dropped out of school in order to work, while others were forced into an early marriage that would save families their daughters’ expenses.
Leaving 1.5 million refugees in a host country that is already struggling with accommodating its own population is neither fair to the refugees or to the country and its people. While experts foresaw the economic consequences of such a human influx on a weak country like Lebanon, education programs agreed upon by the international community and the Lebanese government did not translate to their intended goals, in part due to the practices of public servants at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education and the overall rooted government corruption. For that, MEHE should begin by issuing transparent annual reports about their achievements and spending, in order to show the benefits of the RACE plan qualitatively and quantitatively, and to prove that donor funds are used appropriately. Following that, MEHE must consider paying second shifts teachers in USD, not only for obvious economic reasons relating to the inflated cost of living but also to halt the teachers’ open strike so that refugee students can go back to their physical or virtual classrooms.
In the event of the coronavirus surging in Lebanon as it currently is, the RACE plan should migrate some of its budget to virtual learning solutions that can make it easier for refugee students to access the online models. This can be in the form of routers inside camps, internet cards that are provided by some NGOs, and a supply of internet-capable devices to those households who do not own them.
Overall, there must be a guarantee to a continuous path of education for Syrian refugee children. This path must be protected and monitored by the international community and any government or organization that accepts to be assigned with securing its tasks, in order for every child to have sustainable access to their human right of a good education.
Abu Moghli, M., & Shuayb, M. (2020). Education Under Covid-19 Lockdown: Reflections From Teachers, Students and Parents. 19, 29.
Crisis Group, 2020 Easing Syrian Refugees’ Plight in Lebanon (No. 211; Middle East Report, p. 43). (2020). International Crisis Group.
Deconstructing the Lebanese central bank’s Ponzi scheme. (November 7, 2020). The Economist. Retrieved from:
Devi, S (2020) Economic crisis hits Lebanese health care. Lancet (London, England) 395, 548. Retrieved from:
El Sayed, M. (2020). Beirut Ammonium Nitrate Explosion: A Man-Made Disaster in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 1-5. doi:10.1017/dmp.2020.451
Leenders, R. (2012). Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press. Retrieved March 19, 2021, from:
Mroue, B. (December 1, 2020). World Bank warns of ‘prolonged depression’ in Lebanon. Associated Press. Retrieved from:
Pezzani, Karine M. 2016. Lebanon - Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) Support Project (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group. Retrieved from:
Shuayb, M. S., Makkouk, N. M., & Tuttunji, S. T. (September 2014). Center for Lebanese Studies. Widening access to quality education for Syrian refugees: the role of private and NGO sectors in Lebanon. Retrieved from:
UNESCO (2020, August). UNESCO commits to rehabilitate damaged schools and support the education sector in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion. Retrieved from:
UNHCR (2016, June). Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015. Retrieved from:
UNHCR (2016, September). Connecting Refugees: How Internet and Mobile Connectivity can Improve Refugee Well-Being and Transform Humanitarian Action. Retrieved from:
UNICEF (2016). Education Strategy Note. Retrieved from: http://files.unicef.org/transparency/documents/Lebanon_Education_StrategyNote_3MAY2016.pdf
VaSyr (Rep.). (2018, December). Retrieved November, 2020, from UNHCR website: https://www.unhcr.org/lb/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2018/12/VASyR-2018.pdf
 According to Human Rights Watch, 1.5 million Syrian refugees currently reside in Lebanon, 74% of them lack legal status.
 UNHCR, UNICEF, WFP. VaSyr (Rep.). (2018, December).
 Pezzani, Karine M. 2016. Lebanon - Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) Support Project. Washington, D.C.: World Bank Group.
 According to Mirella Chekrallah from UNICEF’s Beirut office.
 El Sayed, M. (2020). Beirut Ammonium Nitrate Explosion: A Man-Made Disaster in Times of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness, 1-5.
 Leenders, R. (2012). Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State-Building in Postwar Lebanon. Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press.
 Deconstructing the Lebanese central bank’s Ponzi scheme. (2020, November 7). The Economist.
 Mroue, B. (2020, December 1). World Bank warns of ‘prolonged depression’ in Lebanon. Associated Press.
 UNESCO (2020, August). UNESCO commits to rehabilitate damaged schools and support the education sector in the aftermath of the Beirut explosion.
 Crisis Group, 2020 Easing Syrian Refugees’ Plight in Lebanon (No. 211; Middle East Report, p. 43). (2020). International Crisis Group.
 A study conducted by UNHCR in 2016, found that only 68% of refugee households own an internet-capable phone globally.
 The official number of Syrian refugees enrolled in public schools from all levels for the school year 2019-2020 was 148,000 in the second shift which is exclusively for Syrian students, and 48,000 non-Lebanese students in the morning shift which is for both Lebanese and refugee students as per an interview I conducted with the representative of the Reaching All Children with Education (RACE II) plan, Ms. Sonya El Khoury.
 Abu Moghli, M., & Shuayb, M. (2020). Education Under Covid-19 Lockdown: Reflections From Teachers, Students and Parents. 19, 29.
 All quotes referred to Dima Soughayyar are based on an interview I conducted with her via zoom for the purpose of this article.
 Aiming at coping with an increase in the demand on formal education, MEHE created a second shift program in a number of public schools directed at accommodating refugee students from grades one through nine (Shuayb et al, 2014).
 All quotes referred to Sonya El Khoury are based on an interview I conducted with her via zoom for the purpose of this article.
 The source preferred to stay anonymous due to the sensitivity of the information.
 All quotes referred to UNICEF are based on an interview I conducted with UNICEF’s Beirut-based education team via zoom for the purpose of this article.
 Soughayyar preferred not to talk about funds saying she “has no accurate answer” due to her little knowledge of budgeting.
 Devi, S (2020) Economic crisis hits Lebanese health care. Lancet (London, England) 395, 548.
 Until October 2019 the Lira’s value was sustained at an official fixed conversion rate of 1500 Liras equals USD 1. Today, many banks offer depositors a withdrawal plan that implies converting foreign currency funds to Lira following the old 1500 Lira peg. That means losing almost 80% of the value of the money given the rates of the black market that are widely used. Meanwhile, black market traders sell the dollar anywhere between 11,000 and 12,600 Lira depending on the daily political situation.