‘There is no future’: scores of Lebanese flee the economic crisis

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - At dawn at Beirut airport, Wafic Saab bade a quick farewell to his wife and two young boys. They rushed through the gate, in a hurry to catch their plane to Canada. Mr Saab never thought the day would come when his Lebanese-Canadian wife would leave their home country with little prospect of return.

“Life has become very hard here. I honestly do not know what awaits us,” said Mr Saab, as he stood alone in the near-empty departure hallway. “I will do my best for them to return. But if you asked me whether I’m optimistic about it, I would say no. On the contrary, I’m very pessimistic.”

“We don’t know if a war is coming with Israel, or [whether] a civil war might break out. I have no idea. So I think it’s safer for me to just go back home to Canada,” his wife Lama Moubarak Saab told The National, as she pushed her trolley overflowing with luggage.

The Lebanese are reeling from their country’s worst economic crisis in recent history. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs, the local currency has tanked, and inflation is rising rapidly. The government has hit a brick wall in its negotiations for a bail-out with the IMF.

As politicians bicker of the size of the banking sector’s losses, recovery prospects remain dim. Many say that the current crisis, which predates the coronavirus pandemic, is worse than past wars.

“It’s just not working,” said Dominique, another Lebanese-Canadian who decided to leave Lebanon with his wife and two teenage sons. Dominique, who did not give his surname, fled to Canada in 1989, during some of the civil war’s fiercest clashes (1975-1990) before returning to Lebanon 16 years later. “The situation now is really bad,” he said. “We’re going back to our second home with the children.”

An anti-government protester confronts police with a stone during a protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, Lebanon, AP Photo
An anti-government protester confronts police with a stone during a protest against the deepening financial crisis, in Beirut, Lebanon, AP Photo

With the re-opening of Beirut airport on July 1 after nearly three and a half months of closure over coronavirus concerns, a massive brain drain is on the way. Emigration is not a new phenomenon in Lebanon, which relies heavily on remittances sent from its large number of citizens working abroad. But lawyers and researchers have noticed an uptick in requests for information.

“We get almost two requests a week. Until four months ago, we only received two a year,” said lawyer Fouad Debs. His firm, Debs & Associates, does not specialise in emigration but is on a list of suggested lawyers on the US embassy to Lebanon's website.

“The brain drain is happening and is going to increase because I don’t see the situation getting better any time soon. People are getting really desperate. The only way out is to leave,” he told The National.

The path to emigration might be easier for dual nationals, but many others are also trying their luck. “This is the first time that I leave Lebanon,” said a Lebanese nurse, 26, who declined to be named as he walked towards the departure gate at Beirut airport. “I’m going to start [afresh] in Turkey with my wife. It’s safer.”

The nurse said that the main reason pushing him to leave was that his monthly salary in Lebanon is now worth “100 to 200 dollars.” The national currency has lost nearly 80 per cent on the black market since banks started limiting cash withdrawals last November. Today, finding US dollars - which used to be used alongside the Lebanese pounds - has become nearly impossible.

“This crisis was the signal for me to anchor my children in Europe instead of Beirut,” said Hala, an NGO worker with French residency who was also flying out of Beirut that morning with her 16-year old daughter. “I am afraid of insecurity and that schools won’t open like before. I don’t mind living that, but I don’t know why my children should,” she said.

Private universities and schools are becoming unaffordable for many Lebanese families since they started adjusting their rates to the black market. “Long term emigration is becoming a better option than studying here,” said political researcher Nizar Hassan. “If you get a degree here, you don’t have a competitive advantage in the job market and you probably won’t find work.”

Famines and successive security crises have pushed the Lebanese to emigrate en masse since the 19th century, and the country now has a diaspora that is nearly three times larger than the number of inhabitants.

Passengers wait in line to fill a document to undergo a PCR test at the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. AP Photo
Passengers wait in line to fill a document to undergo a PCR test at the Rafik Hariri International Airport in Beirut, Lebanon, Wednesday, July 1, 2020. AP Photo

But emigration also persisted in times of peace because the structure of the Lebanese economy does not produce enough jobs for its graduates, highlighted Mr Hassan. This only accelerated with the latest economic collapse. “It’s a very concerning social phenomenon,” he said.

Leaving Lebanon is not an easy choice, said Mr Saab, reflecting on his family’s departure. A hair stylist, he will soon probably shut down the three branches of hair salons in Lebanon and move to , where one remains open, and then consider his options of reunion with his family.

“I’d rather not go to Canada because it’s far. My family is here, my mum, and my brothers. It’s hard to move in these circumstances,” he said.

His wife, who moved to Lebanon after their marriage 12 years ago, was reluctant to leave. “But I asked her one question: what’s the most important thing in your life? Is it your children? Then go. Here, there is no future,” said Mr Saab.

Updated: July 7, 2020 01:19 AM

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