By: Florence Massena
Political instability, corruption, an ongoing economic crisis that sent thousands of people to extreme poverty, and a blast that destroyed some of the most famous neighborhoods of Beirut. Those are among the main reasons why the future doesn’t look very promising to thousands of young Lebanese people who are now making the choice to leave their family and country behind. But on the long term, it could become an opportunity for Lebanon to shine again.
It has been a year that the country is facing its worst economical crisis to date, officially called the “Lebanese liquidity crisis”. For over 20 years, the Lebanese lira has been pegged to the dollar to prevent hyperinflation and economic collapse following the end of the civil war in 1990, with $1 corresponding to a fixed rate of 1,500 lira. The lira peg has since slipped and the country’s supply of dollars has disappeared. This has been exacerbated by the US sanctions against Iran-backed party Hezbollah and the COVID-19 crisis. The result is that 785 restaurants and cafes closed between September 2019 and February 2020, resulting in 25,000 employees losing their job, and that consumer goods prices have increased by 58% since October 2019.
A year ago, a massive movement of protests took over the streets in the main cities of Lebanon to demand a firm governmental change, which is still unanswered till now despite an ever growing crisis. In 2019, the unemployment rate for people between 15 and 24 years old was of 17.61% according to the International Labor Organization. Within that current climate, only a few handful of people still want to hang on to their country and stay. The others don’t have a choice, due to the lack of possibilities abroad, poverty, and travel restrictions.
This is the case of Kenn Rahal, a 23 year-old artist who applied to go to Europe but was denied his first application to France. “I decided to move before even the explosion happened”, he told Fanack. “I have had emotional issues, I can’t find my place in my community and my country, and my family doesn’t support me. It’s very hard, so I decided to leave. The prices are also beyond control, I can still afford food but very little things. I wonder how people are dealing with it. I guess they can’t. More than the prices, people are just so depressed all the time. I feel very depressed too. I’m going to wait and see until I can find a solution to leave, but I can see that everyone around me is discouraged, all the people I know are in the process of leaving.”
Others are a high level of education and can therefore apply to countries willing to accept young professionals. For example, Melhem Saliba, a 30 year-old civil engineer, and his girlfriend, are in the middle of their application to move to Canada. They both speak French and English and are optimistic about their chances because of their degrees. “We’ll get married and we hope that we’ll be able to go by mid-2021 or maximum at the end of next year”, Saliba told Fanack. “We want to get out as fast as possible honestly. I didn’t want to at the end of my studies but as the years went by I began to know more about the country and I met my girlfriend, and we both ended up realizing we cannot sustain a real life here, even by doing financially okay. With everything going on and the blast, we decided we needed to go this summer.”
Leaving ones country means leaving behind family and loved ones, and it’s a decision people are not taking easily. “I would like to stay and take care of them since we have no security or help from the government when we get old here”, Saliba said. “But my parents came to me and told me to leave. I will have to help them from outside. You have to understand it is not by sheer will that we’re leaving, we’re not happy about it. It’s like we’re getting kicked out of here, if we want a stable life we have to take it somewhere else.”
Other young people had already left, either for work or educational reasons, and are now facing the decision of having to stay abroad. Melanie Abou Khalil, 23, has just graduated in Human Relations in Montreal, where she has been leaving since she was 18 years old. Summer 2020 was supposed to be the time she would have come back to find a job in her country and eventually stay close to her family after five years abroad. “When I first left, I felt like I needed something bigger, more than my country could offer me at the time”, she told Fanack. “I thought I could come back and bring what I learned with me, to do something for my country. But as the years passed each visit was harder, the people more demotivated and less happy. It felt like even if you had money, you would still be unstable, without security or proper governance. And this summer was the worst, it really is a nightmare. I used to be so full of hope! Now I tell everyone to go if they can. I lost hope in my country, my government, and the people in my country. When I left at the end of the summer, that was the first time I was happy about it. Even leaving my parents, because I feel I can help them better from outside.”
Helping Lebanon from outside could be a positive impact on the long term, as Dr Hana Addam El-Ghali, education and youth program director at the Issam Fares Institute, chooses to believe. She had already been part of an event in February 2020 about the October revolution and a participant had asked the panelists, which she was part of: “Would you tell to the youth to stay or leave Lebanon?”. “That was a very emotional question”, El-Ghali told Fanack. “Of course, it’s a topic from the Civil war: people leave the country on regular basis. I myself left, and I came back. What we have noticed is that there has been a huge brain drain since 2019, especially with the middle class being so affected financially. I have a colleague who could afford private schools to both his son and his daughter. They both had to drop out, and while his daughter managed to find a school in Germany, he’s still looking for a solution for his son. People who can pursue an education and people with high education are the most likely to go now. We have a huge drop in enrollment in the universities, but no one will disclose numbers.”
Instead of feeling sad about it, El-Ghali chooses to see the situation as an opportunity for the country: “I hope this will do like after the Civil war, when people started sending money to their country. So maybe we should see it as a positive thing? Maybe investments will come this way in the long term.”
Despite the losses and the crisis, the fact that a part of Lebanon’s population can have opportunities to create a life, develop a career and send money home is still a way of surviving on the long run. Without any other solution, investing in the future could be one of the only ways to create something better in one or two decades. But this hope shouldn’t be based on tearing families apart.