In Beirut, UNESCO ADG hands over rehabilitated schools and universities, renews support to heritage and arts

A year after the deadly blasts that rocked Beirut, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Education Stefania Giannini was back this week to the Lebanese capital to stand in solidarity with its people, and reflect on the concrete results achieved by the Li Beirut initiative launched in the aftermath of the explosions, and which aims to place education and culture at the heart of the reconstruction efforts.

Ms. Giannini met with key national and international education stakeholders and partners to strengthen ongoing efforts to help Beirut’s educational system to recover. On the morning of August 4th, she paid tribute to the victims of the Beirut blasts, and observed a minute of silence in front of the victims’ memorial at the port, along with the UN family in Lebanon and the diplomatic corps.

Giannini handed over to the Minister of Education and Higher Education Tarek Majzoub, the keys of 20 public and 20 private schools that were rehabilitated by UNESCO with the support of the international fund Education Cannot Wait, during a ceremony held at the Jaber Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah public school in Beirut, and in the presence of the Chief of Strategic Partnerships at Education Cannot Wait Nasser Fakih, the director-general at the Ministry of Education Fadi Yarak, and the Director of the UNESCO Office in Beirut Costanza Farina.

“It is a great pleasure to be with you today to share a moment of hope and solidarity with students, teachers, parents and the education community at large, said Stefania Giannini. Last year, with UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay, I visited Beirut two weeks after the explosion and witnessed the destruction of schools first hand. These are images that leave deep scars, ones that can never be forgotten. For the past 12 months, UNESCO has mobilized its teams to coordinate local and international support to ensure that the damaged schools are rehabilitated. This is the power of partnership around a single mission”.

She added: “Rebuilding Beirut starts with the revival of its education sector, and its rich cultural fabric. In situations of crisis, a short-term response is simply not enough. We need a long-term vision to give children and youth aspiration, a sense of hope in the future, and competences to rebuild their lives. We must prioritize and invest more in education, because this is the heartbeat of Lebanon’s future. This is where the real capital of Lebanon has always been and shall remain if we act together to empower this country’s most precious resource – its children and youth – and stay true to our commitments and ambition”. From his side, minister Majzoub affirmed that “the first signs of the return to life after the explosions are revealed through the restoration of schools, educational and university institutions, and the Li Beirut initiative comes in this context”. Minister Majzoub also accompanied the ADG and the attendees to a tour to the rehabilitated Zahrat al-Ihsan private school in the neighborhood of Achrafieh.

On 4 August 2020, at least 85,000 students have seen their access to education interrupted by the explosions and 226 schools, 20 training centers, and 32 university campuses were damaged. In addition to the 40 schools, UNESCO has taken in charge the rehabilitation of 55 public schools, 20 TVET centers, and three universities in Beirut, with the support of the Qatar Fund for Development and Education Above All.

Higher Education and a 5-Year National Plan

During her visit, Stefania Giannini also handed over the keys of 16 buildings at the Lebanese university, rehabilitated by UNESCO, to the President of the university Dr. Fouad Ayoub, in the presence of Minister Majzoub, Director General of Education Fadi Yarak, Director of EAA’s Al Fakhoora programme Talal Al Hothal, First Secretary at the Qatar Embassy in Beirut Nasser Kahtani, and Director of UNESCO Beirut Costanza Farina. On the campus of Lebanon’s public university, she met with faculty members and listened to their concerns, praising the “many great minds and renown intellectuals of the institution who have made indelible contributions to this nation”. “Lebanon continues to face immense parallel and compounded challenges; the education sector has been profoundly impacted, she said. Students, teachers, professors and administrators are paying the highest price and enduring a deep hidden crisis. They are not only coping with learning disruptions and struggling to make ends meet, but they see the future closing in on them and dimming their prospects”.

Another prestigious university rehabilitated by UNESCO is the American University of Beirut (AUB), where 8 buildings with heritage value have been damaged by the blast. Ms. Giannini visited the buildings and took knowledge of the progress made. She was accompanied by the President of the university, Dr. Fadlo Khuri, who received the UNESCO delegation for a meeting, during which Giannini praised the “true social responsibility” AUB has shown after the blasts. “I am aware and very concerned about the brain drain from the country – the migration of faculty members, medical doctors, and nurses. If not reversed, this will add up to dramatic loss of human capital that the country cannot afford, and carries long-term social and economic consequences, she said. I am here to listen to your voices and concerns and get a hands-on sense of major issues facing the higher education sector generally, and this prestigious university in particular, so that we may explore how to step up support from the international community. Our collaboration will go beyond the rehabilitation of buildings and will continue to work together to find solutions and respond better to our challenges”. In his speech, President Khuri thanked UNESCO for its support in rebuilding lives and livelihoods in Beirut, protecting education and heritage, and rescuing symbols where much Arab thought emerged and regional history was shaped. He also commended the AUB-UNESCO collaboration that “has proven to be an excellent concoction of good will, high expertise, and committed support.” “The drive for knowledge, so vibrant in this magnificent university through both war and peace, is uniquely intended towards excellence for the greater good, striving for a better world,” said President Khuri.

© UNESCO

The ADG had kicked off her mission with a meeting at the Lebanese Ministry of Education with Caretaker Minister Tarek Majzoub, after which she took part in the launching of Lebanon’s 5-year plan for the education sector. “I am proud that UNESCO and its specialized International Institute for Educational Planning have collaborated so closely on the plan’s development”, she affirmed, commending its “ambitious vision and transformative approach”. She declared that UNESCO will contribute new financial core resources to sustain its policy engagement. The conference was attended by Director General of Education Fadi Yarak, the President of the Educational Center for Research and Development George Nohra, the Deputy Special Coordinator of the United Nations in Lebanon Dr. Najat Rushdie, the Director of the UNESCO Regional Office in Beirut Costanza Farina, UNICEF Representative Yuki Muku, and the Regional Director of the Levant Department at the World Bank Saroj Kumar Jah. Minister Majzoub pointed out that the plan “provides equal opportunities for all children residing on the Lebanese territory to access quality education in the public and private sectors”. “It also takes into account the marginalized and poor groups and allocates an important space for students with special needs. It is a plan that unifies the efforts of all partners and the observations that we received on the first draft of the plan from international bodies were taken into consideration. The plan has three pillars: justice in providing learning opportunities and preventing or limiting drop-outs for all Lebanese and non-Lebanese children; providing quality and flexible education; and good governance and strengthening the educational administrative system”.

Saving heritage and arts

Stefania Giannini’s mission also focused on culture, another pillar of Li Beirut. 640 buildings with heritage value have been damaged by the blasts, including 60 in critical condition. In this context, she visited heritage buildings saved by UNESCO, which stabilized 14 heritage buildings in the areas of Rmeil, Saifi and Medawar, with the support of Germany and UNESCO’s Heritage Emergency Fund.

She also conducted a tour of the Sursock national museum, which UNESCO is rehabilitating with a donation from the Government of Italy under Li Beirut. In front of the esplanade of the landmark museum, Giannini met with local artists that had taken part in the Li Beirut TERDAD festival that UNESCO organized in July 2021, to revive the city’s cultural life. The artists which represent different forms of art including music, dance, theatre and cinema, raised their concerns about the cultural life in Beirut after the blasts. They also spoke about the positive impact the Li Beirut initiative had on their lives and expressed their enthusiasm to take part in a second edition of the festival.

Stefania Giannini concluded her mission by a visit to the National Museum of Beirut with Deputy Special Coordinator of the United Nations in Lebanon Dr. Najat Rushdie and Director General of Antiquities Sarkis Khoury, followed by a courtesy visit to the Lebanese Caretaker Minister of Defense and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zeina Acar.

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