Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat – Despite the campaign waged by Hezbollah against US projects in Lebanon, the US embassy in Beirut has succeeded in achieving a breakthrough in Hezbollah controlled areas through an English language education program. The Teaching Women English [TWE] program aims to “empower” Lebanese women by teaching them English, and this educational program that is funded and overseen by the US embassy is aimed particularly at Lebanese women who live outside of the capital Beirut. The TWE program aims “to empower women in their communities, to help women improve access to employment and education, to develop civil society in peripheral regions by boosting local associations, and creating a network of women and NGO’s with a shared commitment to increase their opportunities through learning English.”
It is worth noting that the US embassy is implanting this program throughout all areas of Lebanon, including southern Lebanon, and the suburbs of southern Beirut where Hezbollah has a strong presence.
US Embassy Public Affairs Officer Ryan Gilha told Asharq Al-Awsat that the TWE project was launched after the US embassy in Beirut’s Cultural Section first became aware of the need for Lebanese women to learn the English language in order to secure employment opportunities, especially for those women who lived outside of Beirut. He said “Learning the English language is something that is available to women in Beirut by more than one institute; however women who live in other areas suffer from their district lacking specialist [language] institutes. This is the reason why we launched this project to meet the needs of Lebanese women [to learn English] and we have put forward all the facilities necessary for the largest possible number of Lebanese women to take advantage of this. This is not taking place in the capital [Beirut] due to the difficulty of transportation, so we have entered their districts via institutions of the State, and we are offering them free English language [learning].”
In the first phase of the project that first began in February 2008 and lasted until October 2009, more than 990 female students from different regions of Lebanon attended around 45 English-language courses which lasted for around 8 months. The second phase of this project which began in October 2009 saw the number of classes doubled, but the duration of lessons shortened to four-month courses, and an intake of 700 new students. This means that around 1,600 Lebanese women have benefited from this US sponsored program so far. With regards to the demographic overview of the students, it was revealed that 54 percent of women who took part in this are Shiite, 20 percent are Druze, 11 percent Christian, with the remaining 15 percent coming from other Lebanese sects and communities.
The most prominent southern districts to benefit from the TWE project are Deir el Zahrani, Kharayeb, Tameer, Qusayba, Marjeyoun, Maarake, and Tyre, among others.
Ryan Gilha also told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Firstly, we must clarify that we do not consider the south to be a Hezbollah region. We also do not enter the southern districts that do not welcome the project, for our goal is not to force learning on anybody. We also do not believe in providing services to those who are affiliated to terrorist organizations, therefore Hezbollah does not benefit from our services because it is a terrorist organizations…there can be no doubt that women affiliated to Hezbollah have not participated in the [educational] sessions because they are aware that we [the US] are the ones who have organized and financed this.”
The US embassy project is taking place in collaboration with key partners, allowing TWE to enter certain areas that the social and political situation would otherwise bar it from. The Lebanese “Hayya Bina” NGO is one of the organizations who are partnered with the US embassy in implementing the TWE project, and they are dedicated to providing a platform for moderate voices and resisting fear and intolerance. This civilian institute has been a US partner with regards to a number of different US-funded projects in various regions of Lebanon.
Lokman Saleem, the Director of Hayya Bina, spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about how this project is being implemented, stressing that this is taking place with the permission of all local authorities, which has granted the TWE projected legitimacy. He also said that this project is under the supervision of Hayya Bina and the US embassy, and that the Hayya Bina organization is working hard to expand this project to include IT lessons and computer literacy because “discovering such tools allows women to identify and protect their rights.
The TWE project ensures that the female English professors it employs are from the same districts and villages as their students, and the US embassy sought to secure employment opportunities to female English teachers who are from outside of Beirut, refusing to hire teachers from Beirut or abroad.
A teacher at the language school in the southern district of Maaraka told Asharq Al-Awsat that she did not face any difficulties from her students, although she did say that “some people do not like the situation in general.
While a 50-year old woman from southern Lebanon named Haniyeh Zaydan, talking to Asharq Al-Awsat about her desire to learn English said “my daughter lives in London, and whilst travelling I found it difficult to read instructions at the airport. We thank the US embassy, which has provided us with this opportunity, and we urge it to increase these courses which everybody will want to participate in.”