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With the lira losing over 98% of its value, coupled with the eroding value of the currency, Lebanon's 2023 Ramadan is much worse than last year.
In a crowded supermarket in Beirut, 53-year-old Hayat Kanj is unsure of what she can afford to purchase.
Her eyes are drawn to the poultry aisle, where everything is priced in dollars.
“This is different from the last time I was here, when everything was still in Lebanese lira,” Kanj told Fanack. “Now everything is unaffordable.”
On March 23, Ramadan, the holy month of fasting for Muslims during which they abstain from food and liquids from daybreak until sunset, will begin. As the financial crisis in Lebanon, now in its fourth year, worsens, residents will face a new set of difficulties and increased food insecurity.
The country recently adopted a new pricing mechanism that mandates that all goods – particularly imported goods – be priced in dollars. The aim of this move was to promote transparency and protect consumers from the daily fluctuations in Lebanese lira pricing.
However, for 90 percent of Lebanon’s population, including Kanj, who still receive their wages in Lebanese lira and lack access to dollars, dollarization has wreaked havoc on their budgets.
“We used to prepare for Ramadan a month in advance, but now I can’t afford half of the foods I used to cook.” Kanj said. “With prices set in dollars, everything seems more expensive now. This Ramadan will be especially challenging.”
The Lebanese lira has lost more than 98 percent of its value, with three-quarters of the population slipping into poverty since the start of the crisis in 2019. Due to stringent withdrawal rules, people have lost access to their bank deposits, and their purchasing power has greatly diminished.
Despite last Ramadan’s difficulties, experts and observers say that this year’s dollarization, coupled with the lira’s eroding value, will sap any sense of hope and festivity left.
As a point of comparison, last Ramadan’s lira to dollar value hovered at 27,000 L.L. to one dollar, compared to this Ramadan’s staggering spike of 120,000 L.L. to one dollar at the time of writing.
In Sidon, a coastal city in south Lebanon, the sense of community and celebration that once reigned the area during the holy month has dissipated, Marie Khattar, a social observer and Sidon local, told Fanack.
Renowned for hosting numerous entertainment, spiritual and artistic events during the holy month, the city’s 2022 Ramadan schedule once included circus shows, storytelling nights, live musical sessions and communal meals (before dawn and after sunset).
Khattar says there is not yet a clear sense of whether the city will be as busy and eventful this year.
“In the past, Sidon was the go-to place for residents from Beirut’s, Lebanon’s capital to spend Ramadan due to its affordable prices and variety of events,” Khattar said. “But I doubt the same numbers will return this year since nearly everything is in dollars and the decorations haven’t even been set up.”
Instead, the streets are now lit up by malfunctioning streetlights, littered with trash bags, and even the most famous tourist destination, the Crusader fortress built in the thirteenth century, is unvisitable, she noted.
“The water under it has dried up, allowing the stench of sewage to leak inside the historical site, and the trash from previous visits has not yet been picked up,” she said. The municipality has been unable to carry out its responsibilities due to a lack of funds, causing the city to turn into a shadow of its former self, she added.
Adopting a new reality
Similar to last year, meat dishes and popular Ramadan desserts such as qtayef (pancake-like dough filled with cream cheese) and chaabiyet (crunchy pastry filled with sweet syrup) will likely not make an appearance on iftar tables during this holy month, Khattar says.
“Adjustments have been made by everyone. All families make changes according to their situation. Instead of beef chunks in our stews, for example, we are now using cheaper minced beef… but there are families out there who cannot even afford nutritious foods, let alone meats,” she said.
This year’s Ramadan iftar tables will be dominated by vegan and vegetarian dishes that are bean and legume-based, according to Khattar. She calls this development “heartbreaking to our parents and the older generation, who are now forced to adapt after years of working tirelessly to avoid such financial ruin in their years of retirement.”
Even dates, a Ramadan staple, are too expensive.
“Half a kilo, which barely lasts a few days, costs around 400,000 L.L., which is extremely unaffordable,” she said.
Among the latest lifestyle changes brought about by the financial crisis is the replacement of public transport with long-distance walking.
“Many of my neighbors and I started to walk to and from work since we cannot afford cabs, and must continue this even when we fast,” Khattar lamented.
While some non-government organizations continue to provide food aid, they have also been adversely affected by the economic crisis and budget cuts.
Doing charity in times of crisis
Food Blessed’s director, Maya Terro, says that the situation ahead looks bleak. Without sufficient funds, the NGO that has continuously provided food assistance in the past may not be able to do so this Ramadan.
“This year’s campaign is meant to include Ramadan food assistance parcels, cooked meals, and public iftar events,” Terro told Fanack. “Our goal is to ensure that all families across the country can still enjoy this special time of year despite their difficult circumstances.”
Their target is 3000 families, for a total of around 13,500 direct beneficiaries distributed across Lebanon’s most impoverished areas, such as Tripoli, Beqaa, Baalbek, and Beirut.
However, she says the funding forecast so far is bleak and that it is still possible that they will not be able to deliver due to financial constraints. In order to raise as much money as possible, she has organized a GoFundMe page, with a target of $75,000.
A similar concern is echoed by the Lebanese Food Bank (LFB), another NGO responsible for distributing food aid across Lebanon through partnerships with other organizations.
“Since 2020 we’ve been delivering cooked meals and Ramadan dinners through the 130 NGOs we partner with in different regions of the country,” Patsy Jarrouje, LFB’s operations manager told Fanack.
Similarly to previous years, Jarrouje says that a total of six community kitchens will be established across Lebanon to distribute Ramadan dinners, which consist of two dates, one hot meal, and a bottle of water.
“In 2022, we delivered 46,200 meals during the holy month, a significant increase over the 39,600 delivered in 2021. However, as new funding problems have emerged, we expect a number closer to 40,000 this year,” she explained.
Fewer and fewer options
As international donors turn towards helping the victims of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Jarrouje says their budget has suffered significant losses.
She adds that some donors have lost trust in Lebanese NGOs after the $318 million aid package that followed the Beirut port explosion was mismanaged and did not reach all those affected.
“We’re trying to help as much as possible, but some donors are reluctant to contact us; others have drastically reduced their donations,” Jarrouje said.
Due to the exorbitant cost of meat, the NGO plans to provide meals for 21 days, or five days of the week, with three days of meat-based meals and the remaining days being vegetarian or vegan.
“We will certainly take the nutritional aspect into account when planning our meals to ensure our recipients receive adequate nutrition,” the operations manager said. “However, we are concerned about people’s overall health, since even plant-based essentials like rice and lentils are no longer accessible.”
According to UN figures, around two million people in Lebanon, including 1.29 million Lebanese residents and 700,000 Syrian refugees, suffer some form of food insecurity. The situation is expected to worsen during the course of the year.
In the future, Jarrouje expects even the most basic foods to be cut from the Lebanese diet.
“Several people have told us they haven’t eaten meat for months or have stopped buying sugar or vegetables, which can lead to a deficient dietary intake that can be detrimental to one’s health.”
Palestinian activist Ghada Daher, who lives in the Mar Elias refugee camp in Beirut, told Fanack Palestinians and Lebanese alike will likely omit vegetables from their Ramadan dinners – most prominently fattoush, a popular salad in Lebanon that is especially popular during iftars.
“I assume that dinner will be reduced to one main dish,” Daher said.
As Ramadan’s expenses are typically higher than normal months, she says some people are in such a state of desperation that they wish Ramadan would not come. Furthermore, those with several family members to feed have no idea how they will survive when they fast nearly fourteen hours with little food at the dinner table.
“Unemployment is skyrocketing, and wages haven’t improved as dollarization spreads across the country,” she noted. “Even those who were previously able to get by are now becoming more and more impoverished.”
In its 2022 report on Palestinians in Lebanon, UNRWA found that 68% of Palestinian families have eaten fewer meals per day, 62 percent have reduced the amount of food consumed, and 28 percent of adults are skipping meals in favor of feeding their children
Despite the fact that many people will fast for religious reasons, she doubts the same happiness and festivities that accompanied the arrival of the holy month will occur this year.
The hardest hit
According to Daher, the Palestinian community in Lebanon suffered an additional blow since the holy month has traditionally been a time when international donors could do acts of charity and send funds to assist the community. This time around, however, donors have experienced an unexpected turn of events.
“Donors are busy helping earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria, which is understandable, but is causing serious harm to our Palestinian communities, who have no one to turn to,” she explained.
As for the 1.5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, 9 out of ten continue to live in extreme poverty. About 49% of Syrian refugee families are food insecure and 60% of Syrian refugee families live in substandard, overcrowded, or endangered housing, according to Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor.
“For Syrian refugees, the holy month of fasting won’t make much of a difference since refugees have been accustomed to eating just one meal a day for months,” Hussein Mohammad Al-Hussein, a Syrian activist and humanitarian expert, told Fanack.
He adds that due to a lack of new projects taking place in the agricultural and construction sectors where Syrians normally work, the refugees’ purchasing power has been slashed considerably.
“With meat no longer available, refugees converted to plant-based diets. But even those are no longer affordable and compounded humanitarian crises loom on the horizon,” he added.
Syrians used to receive contributions in the past, particularly during Ramadan, Al-Hussein said. However, many of these have since been diverted to Lebanese, who are currently in dire need of help.
“This situation will only worsen, and I expect to hear more cries for assistance over the next few months,” he said.