ByTheEast: At the beginning of June 2019, you had announced you would be closing the gates of Sesobel on June 28, and that you would not be taking new applications because of financing issues. Since then, you seemed hyper active, meeting with politicians and civil society players. What’s the current situation?
Fadia Safi: Yes, it’s true, we had to cancel the hosting of our children’s summer camp as well as our summer activities due to a financial crunch. Unfortunately, we can no longer afford these services. We are working expeditiously so as to be able to resume hosting of the children next September. We have given ourselves up to the end of August to find solutions to our financial needs and the entire Sesobel team is focused on that. We certainly don’t want to shut Sesobel’s door, at all. We work hard, and we appeal to everyone who knows us to help themselves by helping us.
BTE: Let’s analyze the root cause of this financial crisis. Lebanese associations are awaiting State subsidies, that were blocked since the Parliament has still to pass the Budget. What are the Lebanese authorities doing?
Safi: The first one to react was the presidency of the Republic. This intervention unblocked subsidies corresponding to the 3rd quarter of 2018, which we had earlier demanded. The Ministry of Social Affairs has also promised to quickly release funds for the 4th quarter of 2018, which translates to $950,000. Lebanese authorities have also promised that they would sign new contracts. We are therefore awaiting the vote on the Budget, which I hope will be as soon as possible. This will make things so much easier for us.
“We have asked the parents of the children of the beneficiaries to assume their part, if they are in a position to do so; we also encourage them to mobilize people around, to talks about Sesobel and launch self-financing activities…”
BTE: Are you so dependent on State subsidies?
Safi: The problem is cyclical, but it has been going on for many years now. The country’s situation – especially in the last two years – was very bad. Most international donations have targeted their aid towards Syrian refugees living in precarious conditions. Even the private donations we receive have dropped significantly in the last two years.
BTE: How much do you count on the generosity of the population?
Safi: Generosity begins with ourselves. To begin with, we cut in two the salaries of Sesobel’s employees. Then, we have also asked the parents of the children of the beneficiaries to assume their part, if they are in a position to do so; we also encourage them to mobilize people around, to talks about Sesobel and launch self-financing activities…
The majority of associations in Lebanon face a financial crunch. As for Sesobel, the hardest thing is to cater to our third party contracts, such as the General Security or the Lebanese Defense Forces.
Case in point: we take care of the children of our soldiers and officers who serve the Lebanese military. These may be children with educational difficulties or language development disorder, or more. Typically, Sesobel gets paid according to the services it offers, but these are held up since the vote on the Budget is yet to pass. We are also awaiting new contracts. The delay in passing the budget has widespread ramifications and cascading effect. Everything is frozen. The army itself does not know what will be its Budget and have thus not paid its fare. As a result, our therapists have not been paid for the last eight months.
In this context, I have to admit that we are dependent on people’s generosity. Many friends of the association have mobilized moral and financial support. It is heartwarming to know, Sesobel has never received so many support messages. For now, we have mostly received small donations from individual initiatives, but are still awaiting financial support from the State.
BTE: Foreign donors have been at your side for a long time now. Have they been able to help you further nowadays?
Safi: We are bound by contracts with these donors, and we feel they could do no more.
BTE: Sesobel has made significant investments the past few years for the construction of its autism center. Don’t your financial difficulties also come from this demanding investment?
Safi: Not directly, but we had to stop building it anyway. At this juncture, let me clarify that donations made for the center do not cover Sesobel’s operating costs; these are two separate accounts. The autism center is very important to us, especially as there is a real need for it in Lebanon. These children need space, they need specific equipment, and so far, these children only have a floor that is too narrow. In 2011, we had begun the construction of this center which should have supported 120 children, at the beginning of operation. As long as the money came in, we used it for its construction.
Of the four floors of this building, only two are completed and we had to cease construction. We still have to equip everything with furniture and medical equipment, but our coffers are empty. We will continue when our financial situation will be stabilized. In the end, we build men, we do not build stones.
“Self-financing activities contribute 18% to our operating budget. We always need more funds because we are constantly developing new projects.”
BTE: How does the postponement of this center’s construction penalize your association?
Safi: In two ways. Firstly, it prevents us from taking care of children who need it. For years Sesobel has grown steadily which has resulted with us needing more space. Initially, we had planed to use these floors, where autistic children are currently hosted, to establish new production lines (chocolates, biscuits…) as part of our self-financing activities. However, as the months went by, we were unable to generate new income from our production activities as we had planned. It’s like the snake biting its tail, we do have a double need to complete this project.
BTE: Has self-financing become preponderant?
Safi: As an association, we really need to develop our self-financing abilities. Regarding autism and early childhood, we take care of children from birth, by developing early stimulation programs. It is very important to start with children when they are very young, and there is almost no program available in Lebanon. In addition, we now have adults coming out of these programs and for whom we have to implement occupational programs, which are also not available in the country. To finance all this, we have developed our self-financing activities for many years, we sell our products… These products contribute 18% to our operating budget. We always need more funds because we are constantly developing new projects.
BTE: Are tuition and medical fees calculated according to parents’ income?
Safi: No, and it’s a major problem in Lebanon. Disabled children are taken care of as soon as their family is registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs. Whatever your wealth or your income, if you hold the handicap card, you pay nothing to Sesobel. We only ask for transportation costs, but even then we are in deficit because some families could not even pay that. With the current crisis, we have asked exceptionally families, those who can help us, to do it.
BTE: Are you still optimistic in Sesobel’s future?
Safi: I am confident, we will overcome this crisis, much like the ones we have overcome in the past, thanks to the generosity, goodwill and friendship that surrounds us. We have always relied on providence, and on public generosity. Small drops make up a river.
Sesobel in numbers
- Date of establishment: 1976
- Team: 219 employees, 54 volunteer doctors, 171 interns, 274 volunteers
- Number of children in care (2018): 1513 (including 370 in-house), including 198 new families in September
- Services provided (2018): 53,208 medical acts
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