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

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.”

AlamulKhabar World