By Laila Bassam and Aidan Lewis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Before Lebanon’s devastating financial crisis hit, Faraj Faraj believed university could put him on the path from a cramped family home in a poor Beirut neighborhood to financial independence.

Instead, like a growing number of young Lebanese, soaring costs forced the 19-year-old to drop out of school just over a year ago, before he finished high school.

“I don’t have a family who can help me finish my education, and there’s no work,” he said, adding that even though he was in a public school, the cost transport had become difficult to bear.

A UN study published in January showed that 30% of Lebanese between the ages of 15 and 24 had dropped out of school. More and more young people are skipping meals and cutting back on health care, the survey finds.

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Faraj, his parents, two unemployed brothers and two young sisters still in school sleep between two bedrooms in a small apartment in Borj Hammoud in Beirut, a neighborhood with narrow and crowded streets that was damaged by a massive explosion at the port of the city in 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic and the port explosion, which still mark Beirut’s waterfront, have worsened what the World Bank has described as one of the worst economic collapses since the mid-19th century.

Although an elite earning dollar wages still crowd the uptown bars and cafes, poverty has reached 80% and many struggle to afford meals and medicine.

“In the past, we could buy things, even if there were difficulties,” Faraj said. “Now, with the crisis affecting us more, it’s just food and drink.”

Faraj is training to become a hairdresser under a program supported by the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, which aims to help young Lebanese facing soaring unemployment and wages of around $2 a day for those who can find work.

“Once a young person has dropped out of school at the age of 13, 14, 15, it’s really hard to get them back into school, and so they enter a very precarious job market with a serious lack of education and skills,” said Alexandre Schein, head of UNICEF’s youth section in Lebanon.

“The implications are that the skills needed to rebuild Lebanon out of crisis will not exist in the country.”

United Nations and government data also show a decline in education spending and schooling for children under 15, as well as an increase in child labor.

Some families moved from private to public schools, but the latter struggled to provide distance learning when the pandemic hit and were hit by shutdowns and strikes over low teacher salaries after reopening .

Many school and university teachers have left their jobs or the country, joining an accelerating brain drain.

The problems are linked to the country’s broader political and economic crisis, Education Minister Abbas el-Halabi said.

“Lebanese youth are gradually losing faith to continue living in Lebanon,” he told Reuters.

“It is true that we have seen dropouts or dropouts or distancing from school. There are many families who no longer consider education as important, but there is also great interest on the part of of some Lebanese, since it is the only weapon they can give to their children.”

(Writing by Aidan Lewis; editing by Alison Williams)

Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.