May 1, 2020

Protests, inflation and COVID-19: Lebanon adapts

Opportunities for youth are being constricted by violent protests, stunted by COVID-19 and eroded by inflation. Refugees are feeling the psychological toll.

Whether you’re Lebanese, Palestinian or Syrian, if you’re a young person in Lebanon right now, you’re suffering. The brunt of the current political unrest, a crashing economy and now a complete country-wide lockdown is overwhelmingly born by youth. Yet, for refugee populations, the challenges are having a greater impact. 

Syrians in Lebanon are denied entry to most sectors of the labour market and are formally only permitted to work in agriculture, construction and cleaning. The violent protests, rising inflation of up to 60 percent and lockdown have dried up most informal economies, where 92 percent of working refugees are employed. The devaluation of the Lebanese pound has seen prices skyrocket, meaning many Syrians are without work, income and more importantly, without hope.


Mohammad Ali Salha, a Lebanese Radiology graduate, working at a Zahle hospital explains how he is affected by COVID-19 © 2020, SPARK

When surveying SPARK’s current students, 40 percent asked for psychosocial support. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Mohammad Ali Salha, a Lebanese Radiology graduate from the Omar Al-Mokhtar Educational Center in Bekaa, has been working at a Zahle hospital. He says, “Coronavirus pandemic is affecting our families and lives. As healthcare workers in hospitals, we cannot see and meet our beloved ones”. 

Over 10 weeks, SPARK is providing daily psychosocial support via online video conferencing. Students are connected with a certified psychologist, who delivers group sessions in wellbeing, coping with anxiety and depression, mindfulness techniques and time management. 

One student said, “It helps us to follow our studies in these difficult circumstances, and relieve the psychological pressure that we might feel as we are always busy with studying our lectures.” Dedicated daily telephone helplines between 10:00 and 16:00 also allow SPARK’s students to call the local team and receive support, help to solve problems, and onward connections to other service providers should they require it. 

The current shift towards online services came early in Lebanon. When the civil unrest began to take hold across the country, all public and private higher education institutes closed their doors. After nearly six months of protests, SPARK has adjusted its programming to continue to support students, entrepreneurs and businesses remotely. 

One student said of online university classes, “I actually find it helpful because you don’t miss anything. Everything is recorded so even if you missed the class, you can re-watch it whenever you need. Also, I have extra time for studying because I used to travel from the southern parts of Lebanon to Beirut every day to attend classes. This took a lot of time and now with online education, I’m saving that time.”

Now, the almost 500 currently enrolled Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian students SPARK supports in Lebanon, also have access to online English classes, soft skills training, digital skills and academic counselling. Teething problems with setting up these new systems are continuously being ironed out. For example, when surveyed, 81 percent of the students in Lebanon said they had access to a smartphone (while only 12 percent had access to a laptop) so virtual courses are being optimised for mobile use. Students also reported issues with timings of online classes. “Please consider adjusting the times for lectures and exams as sometimes they are conducted at times when there is no internet or electricity”, explained one student.

Despite the early implementation challenges, SPARK’s dedicated local partners continue to adapt to the ever-changing situation. For example, in December last year, ten students were awarded coaching and seed funding for their business plan ideas during a business plan competition, financed by the Dutch Postcode Loterij, Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Islamic Development Bank and Sheikh Abdullah Alnouri Charity Society. Once the country-wide lockdown prevented them from physically meeting, Injaz Lebanon, SPARK’s local partner, shifted coaching online.


Economic Empowerment Programme financed by Islamic Development Bank and Sheikh Abdullah Alnouri Charity Society, in collaboration with Injaz Lebanon © 2019, SPARK
Economic Empowerment Programme financed by Islamic Development Bank and Sheikh Abdullah Alnouri Charity Society, in collaboration with Injaz Lebanon © 2019, SPARK
Economic Empowerment Programme financed by Islamic Development Bank and Sheikh Abdullah Alnouri Charity Society, in collaboration with Injaz Lebanon © 2019, SPARK

The situation throughout Lebanon has put huge pressure on young people, especially refugees who are trying to rebuild their lives, but some are taking matters into their own hands. One student said, “This experience is new and it makes me more independent. Add to that, with online learning, I am acquiring new skills such as how to use the computer, education platforms and programmes”. Standing in solidarity with the youth in Lebanon are the many psychologists, lecturers, professors, trainers, business coaches, local organisations and SPARK, as we support them in their journey to successful careers, despite the circumstances.