Mohammed Khateeb had always dreamt of becoming an architect and had thought his top marks in school would help him fulfill that dream. A few years later, Khateeb ended up as a construction worker with a low wage.
His failure to achieve his ambition was not because he changed his mind or could not pass tests, but for lack of money.
Khateeb is among thousands of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon dreaming of pursuing their studies but ending up leaving school early, unemployed or in low-paid job that has nothing to do with education.
Their main problem is poverty as the Palestinians residing in Lebanon for more than 60 years are barred from free government schools and universities.
What aggravates their ordeal is that they are also banned to work in the public sector and most Lebanese private establishments. This has given rise to unemployment among the Palestinians, now above 80 per cent.
Yet, Palestinians have the highest literacy rate in the Arab world, exceeding 90 per cent at the end of 2008. This perhaps is because the majority of them live in Diaspora, finding education almost their only weapon to survive.
“I have always wanted to be an architect as I loved mathematics and building,” said the 28-year-old Khateeb. “But my father said he can not afford it so I left school early…look where I have ended up now—at a construction site earning hardly enough to feed myself…yet I am still dreaming of being an architect.”
Khateeb lives in the sprawling Ain Al-Helweh, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon as it houses at least 100,000. The teeming camp also has the highest population density in the country as it does not exceed eight square km.
Most Palestinians living in the refugee camps and other areas in Lebanon get their primary education at schools funded by the United Nations. But such overcrowded schools provide only up to preparatory levels, forcing those who can not afford private schools to stop at that level and look for work.
The situation worsened after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and ejected most Palestinian guerrilla factions from that country, leaving tens of thousands unemployed. Many families also lost major source of income as the expelled factions stopped monthly salaries to most of them.
Nearly 350,000 Palestinians live in Lebanon, making up the largest foreign community in the tiny Arab nation. The majority of them reside in the country’s 12 refugee camps that were set up just after the Palestinians were kicked out of their homes in 1948 and forced to scatter through nearby Arab nations.
Ain Al-Helweh, located just near the southern Lebanese port of Sidon, has many schools but all of them do not run up to the secondary level. Neighbouring Mieh Mieh, a much smaller Palestinian camp, has only one school and there have been persistent complaints about lack of space for students.
Thousands of Palestinians who managed to reach the secondary school level took advantage of the political upheaval in Lebanon during the civil war 30 years ago to enroll in government universities and get high studies degrees.
“My father was luckier than me,” Khateeb said. “He achieved his dream by studying law at the Lebanese University for free as Palestinians were allowed to study at government universities during the civil war,” he said.
Recognizing the significance of education, a handful of Palestinian families have launched individual initiatives involving the creation of family funds to finance university scholarships for their youth in Lebanon and abroad.
One of the biggest funds is the one launched by the Kawashi clan in south Lebanon a few years ago. At least 30 Kawashi family members who work in the oil-rich Gulf and other countries contribute over $50,000 every year to that fund.
According to its manager, Faiz Kawash, the Family Education Fund has so far financed university scholarships for nearly 35 students.
The Fund was the brainchild of the family chief Fawzi Kawash, who had headed the Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), one of the largest Arab construction firms, now based in Athens. Fawzi is the main contributor to that fund and often encourages other well-off family members to join in.
“I had always been obsessed of how to pursue my higher education….thanks to this fund, I have fulfilled my dream,” said Ayman Hameed Kawash.
Fayez described Fund as a strategic and vital project because it encourages education, which “is a weapon for the Palestinians in the absence of land, identity, property and other fixed resources.”
“Although it is still a modest initiative, this fund is contributing to creating an educated generation in our family…it will be a self-supporting and –self-dependent generation, which should work hard to support the Kawash family in particular and the Palestinian cause in general,” he said.
“In the absence of land, all Palestinians believe education is their main weapon to survive and at the same time push ahead with their struggle against Israel.”
Despite lack of funds, the Palestinians now have the lowest illiteracy rate in the Arab world and those who are illiterate are believed to be old people who had not got a chance to go to school while in Palestine several decades ago.
Figures by the Arab League, which cited the United Nations, showed the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip had the lowest illiteracy rate in the Arab region, standing at only around 5.8 per cent at the end of 2008.
The rate was 2.8 per cent among men and 8.9 per cent among women.
The report showed Palestinians, estimated at over seven million, had the lowest female illiteracy rate in the Arab region along with Kuwait and Qatar. All other Arab nations had double digit rate in female illiteracy at the end of 2008.