Lebanese father who set himself on fire over unpaid school fees dies

Zureik’s death sparked angry responses on social media with many comments critical of high school fees and Lebanon’s worsening economic situation. (Screenshot: Social Media)
Updated 09 February 2019

Lebanese father who set himself on fire over unpaid school fees dies

  • Zureik is believed to have asked the school for documents to transfer his daughter to a semi-free public institution, but was refused because of outstanding tuition fees
  • Zreik reportedly took the desperate step after the school refused to give him a certificate attesting that his daughter was a student

BEIRUT: A Lebanese man died from severe burns Friday after setting himself on fire at his daughter's school over a fee dispute with the management, it was announced on Saturday.

George Zreik doused himself with petrol and set it ablaze Thursday at Our Lady of Kaftoun secondary school in the Koura district of north Lebanon, the doctor who treated him told AFP.

Gabriel al-Sabaa, head of the surgery department at the al-Salam hospital in Tripoli, said that "burns covered 90 percent of his body".

Zreik reportedly took the desperate step after the school refused to give him a certificate attesting that his daughter was a student, the state-run National News Agency said.

He needed the certificate to transfer her to another institution.

The school withheld the document because Zreik had failed to pay fees he owed the management, the report said.

The school said in a statement that it had granted Zreik's two children free tuition since they enrolled in 2014.

But the father still had to pay for the bus service, stationery and extracurricular activities, it said.

The school said it had sent four written notices since the start of the school year asking him to settle outstanding payments.

Zreik’s death sparked angry responses on social media, some siding with Zreik and others criticizing him, with many comments critical of high school fees and Lebanon’s worsening economic situation.

MPs from North Lebanon joined the online protests, describing Zureik as “a martyr of taxes and the high cost of living.”

MP Sami Gemayel said Zureik was “a martyr to irresponsibility and lack of accountability,” while MP Michel Moawad said: “His suicide is an unprecedented Lebanese tragedy that reflects the worsening economic and social conditions in the country.” 

Activist Farouq Yacoub wrote in an online post: "We need to take to the streets and torch the country the way George Zreik torched himself." 

The school administration denied responsibility for the incident and said in a statement that “due to the deceased father’s economic situation, the school had shown sympathy since his two children enrolled in 2014/2015 and exempted him from paying fees except for transportation, stationary and extracurricular activities.”

However, Lebanon’s Ministry of Education has announced an investigation into the circumstances of the incident. 

Education Minister Akram Shahib said that public schools in the country this year have accepted thousands of students who were transferred from private schools because of the tough economic conditions.
 
The minister said he will ensure Zureik’s children continue their education and will provide them with the necessary scholarships.
 
“I hope that this painful incident will be an incentive for the government to make improving the difficult economic and living conditions a priority,” he said. 

Economist Louis Hobeika described the incident as “a sad situation.”

“The Ministry of Labor has estimated the unemployment rate in Lebanon at 25 percent — and it might be higher,” he said.

“We have noticed a fall in the number of parents who can pay university tuition fees, prompting students to work at restaurants and other places. But the problem with schools is that parents are the only ones who can pay for their children’s tuition.”


Tel Aviv beaches fall foul in Israel’s passion for plastic

Updated 22 August 2019

Tel Aviv beaches fall foul in Israel’s passion for plastic

  • Despite the activities of environmental groups, Israel remains hooked on plastic

TEL AVIV: In the early morning, when the only sound on Tel Aviv beach is the waves, Yosef Salman and his team pick up plastic debris left by bathers or cast up by the sea.
Working in heat and humidity with large rakes, they scoop plastic cups, cigarette ends, empty sunscreen tubes and soiled babies’ nappies.
Also present, but impossible to separate from the sand, are microplastics, tiny particles of plastic debris that have been broken down by sun and salt.
“When it rains... you can see tons of plastic in the sand,” says Ariel Shay, of the Plastic Free Israel movement, which organizes volunteer beach cleanups.
Despite the activities of environmental groups, Israel remains hooked on plastic.
A June report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) ranked Tel Aviv’s coastline as the third most polluted by plastic waste in the Mediterranean, behind Barcelona and southern Turkey.
Valencia, Alexandria, Algiers and Marseille were listed in fourth to seventh places.
With around four million inhabitants, Tel Aviv is Israel’s most populous metropolitan area.
“Every time I go to the beach now, I spend my time cleaning — it’s horrible!” complains Shani Zylbersztejn, with an eye on her nine-month-old daughter, who plays with a plastic fork freshly dug from the sand.
In the upper-crust town of Herzliya, just north of Tel Aviv, Limor Gorelik, of the environmental protection NGO Zalul, patrols the sands, offering beachgoers bamboo cups and reusable bags in a bid to wean them from single-use plastics.
Gorelik blames Israel’s passion for plastic on a lack of education and on deeply ingrained habits, such as using disposable tableware for family picnics.
Observant Jews who want a beachfront lunch on Saturdays are forbidden from washing the dishes afterwards, because their faith bans them from working on the Sabbath.
“They’re not permitted to wash dishes so they use disposable plastic,” Gorelik says.
Even plastic waste dumped in the bins that dot the beaches can end up in the sea, carried by the wind or by birds which rip open garbage bags in search of food.
Independent researcher Galia Pasternak has analyzed coastal plastic pollution in Israel.
According to her data, 60 percent of the waste on the beach comes from the bathers themselves.
Some is also borne by currents from Gaza and Egypt in the south or from Lebanon further north.
In 2005, Israel’s environmental protection ministry launched a program offering local councils incentives for proven results in cleaning their beaches.
Subject to regular inspection, councils that meet requirements get funding, while failing authorities face cuts or even court, says Ran Amir, head of the environment ministry’s marine division.

Amir cites the case of the popular Palmahim beach, south of Tel Aviv.
Palmahim municipal council was taken to court and fined over the state of the beach — which has since become “one of the cleanest beaches in Israel today,” he says.
The ministry’s strategy in recent years has also included public service messages on radio and online, along with fines, recycling facilities and education, according to Amir.
“It think it has partially worked,” says Pasternak, who helped set up some of those programs.
Zalul’s Gorelik, however, says Israel is still trailing behind other countries.
She says charges introduced in supermarkets in 2017 for plastic bags — previously given away free — are too low, at just 0.10 Israeli shekels (0.02 euros/ $0.03) each.
“It’s not enough,” Gorelik says, adding that even this modest measure does not apply to small grocery stores.
She points to new European Union restrictions on single-use plastics.
“Europeans are the leaders on the subject,” she says.
“Here, we are very far away.”