Beirut, Lebanon Mona Azzam has been an army teacher in Lebanon’s mountainous Chouf district since 1996.
The 58-year-old said she was happy with her job and living conditions for much of that time, but since the value of the Lebanese pound began to decline in 2019, she has struggled to cover basic costs.
This month, for the first time in her career, she joined a teachers’ strike that demanded higher salaries and better working conditions.
With the depreciation of the pound, Azzam’s monthly salary has dropped to the equivalent of less than $ 100, and she’s struggling to keep up with rising fuel costs to keep the lights on and keep the heaters running in winter.
“My salary can now barely cover fuel costs and tire changes, and I live several villages away from my school,” Azzam told Al Jazeera. “We live in the mountains, so if I can not change my car tires properly, I will end up in a car accident.”
On January 10, the country’s public school teachers launched an open strike. Most of Lebanon’s public schools have closed and are refusing to open, as teachers are demanding higher wages and grants to earn a living wage.
Lebanon’s public sector workers’ wages have not been adjusted to reflect the pound’s nose dive devaluation of more than 90 percent and the country’s rising inflation rate.
In the two years since the country’s economic crisis began, three-quarters of the population has fallen into poverty, making the cost of electricity, water and food huge burdens as millions of families are forced to work on tight budgets.
Abier Jaber is among many contracted public school teachers who are paid by the hour. Since the onset of the crisis, the value of her hourly wage has dropped from just over $ 13 an hour to just under $ 1.
“Teachers tried to ride together because they could not afford petrol, and we sometimes paid out of our own pocket to make sure students had enough stationery and could enjoy learning,” she told Al Jazeera. “But now we can no longer afford to do that.”
Schools also need teachers, Jaber adds, because the government does not have the resources to appoint more of them. Meanwhile, due to the economic crisis, many Lebanese families who would have previously sent their children to private education are enrolling their children in public schools, leading to an increase in the demand for places.
Some teachers initially paid out of their own pocket to help students afford books and stationery they needed, but Azzam and Jaber say it is no longer sustainable. The teachers say they did not receive any compensation from the government for the additional costs for internet and telephone bills during the pandemic when they taught remotely.
Dima Wehbi, the Policy, Advocacy and Communications Adviser at the International Rescue Committee, told Al Jazeera that families face many obstacles to ensuring their children’s education.
“Access to education seems to be increasingly challenging with parents struggling to afford transportation and stationery and even meals,” Wehbi explains. “Fuel for heating is also a problem in schools and so is electricity.”
She adds that the devaluation of teachers’ salaries, “especially in the public sector”, affects access and quality of education.
But Lebanon’s almost bankrupt government says it can not do much. Education Minister Abbas Halabi said the teachers’ demands for better salaries and working conditions were “justified”.
“There is no doubt about it, but there are also similar calls from the army, the legal system and the public transport drivers, ”Halabi told Al Jazeera. “This is a problem that is not only with teachers. This is a problem that is within the whole country. “
Halabi said the whole government should work to solve the problem.
“It’s a bigger problem than the Ministry of Education, and I do not have that ability to solve it,” he said. “I am not the Minister of Finance, and I do not only determine the cabinet’s policy.”
The minister enlisted the help of humanitarian agencies to help schools with public health measures for COVID-19, campus facilities and to help vulnerable families keep their children at school.
Lebanon’s crisis stunned effect on millions of children. UNICEF and humanitarian groups have documented thousands of cases of child abuse in recent years, including an increase in rates of child marriage and child labor to secure money for their struggling families.
The groups estimate that about 15 percent of families have stopped sending their children to school.
Non-profit organizations, including CodeBrave, have tried to provide other opportunities for children. The organization provides technical education to underprivileged children, in an effort to help them secure jobs and higher education opportunities.
“We got to know about 30 children while volunteering in a shelter in 2018, and many of them who went away and were drawn into militias and sex work because they had no jobs,” said CodeBrave co-founder and director, Clementine Brown, told Al Jazeera. “And it was one of the children, Khalil, who suggested learning to code.”
Their offices in Beirut are filled with stacks of laptops, tablets, smartphones and other equipment for their students. Brown says they have expanded rapidly due to the rising demand from schools and NGOs.
CodeBrave has supported more than 400 students by 2021 and has the funding to support an additional 100 this year.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese authorities are not currently planning to increase the salaries of teachers and other employees in the public sector, according to legislators and the government’s draft 2022 budget. The government will discuss a plan to increase teachers’ transportation allowances and to provide temporary cash bonuses in more than three months at their first meeting on Monday. Lawmakers close to the prime minister say they expect these measures to be agreed.
Azzam says she is grateful that her son, who lives abroad, is transferring a much-needed hard currency to help with their monthly expenses. Her husband postponed his retirement and decided to continue working after the value of his savings dropped. But she says the government can not allow teachers to continue like this.
Jaber, meanwhile, says if teachers’ working conditions do not improve, they will continue to strike.
“School teachers need to work under better conditions,” she says. “Otherwise the school year will already be over.”