BEIRUT: Happy hours across the city in their bid to offer respite from the workweek have begun to compete with an unlikely rival: school. The weekly lineup of social gatherings, from gallery openings to karaoke nights, has expanded to include an ever-growing number of casual courses on anything from self-esteem and public speaking to sewing and creative writing.
They happen in all sorts of venues, from the offices of NGOs and startups to artist collectives and offbeat cafes. The classes tend to target a young professional demographic, one with time to spare in the evenings to learn something new and socialize with like-minded folks.
Two friends, Helene de Ridder and Yoka Nassar, watched as that appetite for alternative education grew, and about one year ago, they opened a space dedicated to this casual, inexpensive system of learning.
Skillz is an alternative learning center that offers courses in just about any topic for which the pair could find a worthy teacher. There’s conversational Lebanese and English, classes on how to use your iPad, public speaking, painting and Photoshop; they’ve even hosted a sushi-making course.
“I think nowadays, just like people look for this small, boutique hotel, that’s what you get at Skillz. It’s comfortable, the classes are small. It’s all about the experience,” Nassar said. At Skillz, classes cost $15 an hour on average.
As the two women chatted with The Daily Star, a student came in for her Dutch class.
“She’s moving to Belgium!” Nassar said, with the excitement of a teacher who knows her students well.
In another classroom, three women gathered around a table for a morning class on Photoshop as the instructor described an edited image on the projector screen.
Both Ridder and Nassar are from the Netherlands but have lived in Lebanon for years with their children and Lebanese husbands.
Nassar, who used to teach English literature at Broummana High School, has a background in education. Ridder spent many years in England and Paris working in corporate human resources.
They lead a few of the courses, while the majority of the teaching is handled by specialized instructors.
The first year in business has uncovered a few holes in local education, both the alternative and formal systems.
Take their new public speaking for teens class. The workshop is meant to help boost confidence among young people who will be expected to market themselves to universities. There are also English classes for teens to broaden their vocabulary ahead of school exams.
“They can manage in conversation, but they have very limited language skills. They can’t form an opinion,” Nassar said.
“When I taught at Broummana, I used to have to ban certain words in my classes. You can’t say nice; you can’t say good.”
Skillz also offers classes for seniors, a demographic rarely targeted for social or educational activities. They offer computer workshops on word processing software, smartphone tutorials and other technology.
An explosion of NGO activity in the country due to the million plus Syrian refugees has also provided opportunities for professional learning in Lebanon. Working in a demanding field, these aid and relief providers need access to rapid training, stress management courses and team-building workshops – all of which Skillz has begun to offer.
Sometimes NGOs just ask to have a quiet space to host a staff meeting, Ridder said.
A number of ecotourism groups have started offering outings and professional education activities as local corporations warm to the benefits of team-building. Investing in staff harmony and education is becoming trendy, Ridder said. Skillz complements the outdoorsy side of team-building with continuing education classes, like finance for nonfinance managers, business writing and public speaking.
Inquiries from outside Beirut have interested the founders in opening Skillz branches in Jounieh or Tripoli.
But for now, the most important thing, they said, is maintaining that comfortable, low-key atmosphere that has attracted so many people to dabble in casual classwork.
“They like it so much that some people will take two or three classes in a row,” Ridder said.
“It becomes their place.”