22 September 2010
By Simona Sikimic, Daily Star
Some 30,000 Palestinian children across Lebanon will receive back-to-school kits this week as part of a United Nations’ push to reduce the financial burden for families struggling to equip their children for the new school term, it was announced on Monday.
The kits – comprised of pens, drawing equipment and books – have been provided by UNRWA and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and will give even the poorest students an equal footing and encourage sometimes reluctant parents to enrol their children.
“Getting students back to school marks an important step in the lives of children in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon,” said UNICEF chief representative in Lebanon Ray Virgilio Torres. “There is an enormous amount of work ahead to improve the quality of education and the learning environment, but the faces of the children here today remind us that all is possible.”
The programme, the first collaboration between UNICEF and UNRWA on providing back-to-school supplies, was officially launched at the Bireh Primary School near the Burj Barajneh Palestinian camp.
“I am always delighted when we are able to provide concrete support of this kind … [but] I am also a little saddened that simple challenges such as the lack of pens and paper often prevent children from receiving the quality of education they deserve,” said Torres.
The Bireh school is expected to receive almost 500 students aged 6 to 12 this year this year but, like most UNRWA schools, it suffers from underfunding and mass overcrowding, which have affected the organisation’s teaching standards, once considered among the best in the Middle East.
Even the kits, largely funded by contributions from the Italian public, were unable to provide school bags as hoped and probably include about half of the supplies required for the whole year, organisers said.
“The demand for school places is huge, especially in the first grade,” said Bireh head teacher Mowaffack Maarouf. “We have actually had to turn away pupils because we simply do not have enough space.”
As a result, dropout rates are increasing almost nationwide and those with special needs are slipping through the net, said Maarouf.
Despite large shortfalls in their operating budget, UNRWA has embarked on a recent restructuring campaign to boost efficiency of existing services.
“The new UNRWA approach and leadership is very hands on, they are actively listening to our needs and are working to address them,” said Maarouf.