[Beirut] Aly Hammoud has treasured memories of his homeland Lebanon, but not from his final months there.
“Lebanon is a beautiful country, but life became a constant process of catching up to the change of the prices and the exchange rates,” the 28-year-old told The Media Line. “You were not able to think about your future, you could just think about your current situation.”
Aly, a member of Lebanon’s Shi’ite minority that makes up about one third of the population, left the country more than a year ago. He fled in the midst of what the World Bank has called one of the worst economic crises since the 1850s.
Aly’s story is so many people’s story. Between 2017 and 2021, approximately 215,653 people left Lebanon, according to the Beirut-based Information International research center. For the United States, that number would be negligible, but for Lebanon’s 5.5 million population, the scale of departure is immense.
The center’s report shows that the number of Lebanese emigrants soared from 17,721 in 2020 to 79,134 in 2021, an increase of 450%. Almost every day, Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport (named for a slain former prime minister) is the setting for heart-breaking farewells as young people and even entire families board planes without a return ticket.
“We didn’t choose to go outside the country, to leave our parents, to bid farewell to Lebanon,” Hammoud tells The Media Line. “We had to leave in order to be able to survive and provide for ourselves a decent living.”
After moving to Qatar with his brother’s help, Aly now works as a finance supervisor in a hotel, a couple of hours away from Doha. The two brothers share a room and Aly also works occasionally as a model.
“At the beginning, starting a life far from Lebanon was very hard, but you have to do it in order to survive,” he says.
Murielle El Feghaly is a general surgeon who now lives in France. It has been a few months since this Lebanese Christian medical professional left her country, and she knew it was what she had to do.
“Since the economic situation affected both my personal and professional life, I decided that staying was a waste of time and I tried to find a way to move abroad to continue my training, live better and start building my career,” she tells The Media Line.
El Feghaly looks back on her last months in Lebanon with sorrow.
“After the crisis started, life wasn’t the same, and the joy and happiness we had before disappeared slowly, replaced by despair and loss of hope for our country and ourselves,” she says.
Coming from a big family, she had the support of her parents and relatives to take the step that would boost her career. And she is not the only physician to seek her fortune elsewhere; data from September 2021 indicates that more than 40% of Lebanon’s doctors had already left the country.
In Murielle’s case in particular, leaving was almost mandatory as she had chosen a field “not commonly for girls.”
“I would like to build a career and a reputation outside of Lebanon, learn as much as I can and maybe one day I’ll go back and prove to my people that I can be an even better surgeon than male ones,” Murielle says.
But walking away from one’s culture and community is not an easy thing to do, and besides not everyone can afford the departure. One fifth of those who do leave go into debt to finance their travel to a new country, from where they try to support the family that remains in Lebanon.
Those who stay endure life in a crumbling state. They are forced to exist in a country without public utilities such as power and water, with a local currency that has lost 95% of its value and one of the highest inflation rates in the world. Three quarters of the population are living under the poverty line, according to the United Nations.
The desire to leave the small Mediterranean country that was once called “the Paris of the Middle East” cuts across generations, faiths, nationalities and professions. All are in agreement; a better life awaits outside Lebanon.
A Gallup poll from December 2021 found that 63% of Lebanese still in the country say they want to leave forever. Some of those who want to leave are unable to do so, because their savings are frozen in the banks. Others have decided to get out no matter what.
Increasing numbers of desperate people have been boarding small boats trying to reach European coasts hundreds of kilometers away, some perishing in the attempt.
After 13 months without a job in Lebanon and going through dozens of interviews in which he was offered very poor salaries, filmmaker and video and media producer Ziad Al Zayyat chose to try his luck abroad. He was accepted into a university in Paris, to study towards his master’s degree.
“It was my dream come true,” he tells The Media Line. But then he had to wait for months for his visa – and it never came.
“I was depressed for almost two months,” 32-year-old Al Zayyat says of the time after he realized he could not take up his place in Paris.
Back in his native Tripoli, the poorest city on the Mediterranean coast, Al Zayyat has not lost faith, and is applying for jobs in Lebanon and abroad.
“Now I came back to refresh myself so I started applying to Dubai again and maybe I will reapply to France in October,” the Sunni Lebanese says.
Historically, Lebanon is going through its third wave of mass emigration and the first triggered by the economic collapse. The first exodus occurred in the early 20th century when famine and World War I caused around 300,000 people to leave. The second came during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990 when some 900,000 people fled. Now the children of those who insisted on staying throughout the brutal conflict are the ones leaving in what seems to be an irreversible exodus.
The country is already suffering the consequences of this loss of human capital. Ninety percent of Lebanon’s youth have indicated that they are thinking about or actively seeking immigration, according to the Arab Youth Opinion Poll, which says this is the highest ratio among all the Arab countries.
Many specialists and professionals, especially health care workers and those in higher and secondary sectors, including state employees, are choosing to leave.
The Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut warns this exodus is one that will last.
“With the absence of political decisions to approach it seriously, the country is likely to collapse deliberately: state institutions will disappear, and fall into a two-decade deadly vortex, which will form a pressure factor on hundreds of thousands of citizens, who will rush to leave their homeland in search of investment, work, study and retirement,” it said.
“The effects of the third migration wave will be devastating through a difficult loss of Lebanese human capital, which is the key to rebuilding the country socially and economically,” it warned.
Lebanon is already one of the countries that is home to the highest proportion of elderly in the region. This new exodus will lower the birth rate and raise the average age of the population even more while falling productivity and job options impact the economy.
Despite these terrible consequences, Lebanese keep leaving. Beyond the typical destinations of Europe, the US, Australia and the Gulf states, many Lebanese have found a new life in Turkey, Armenia, Georgia or Serbia, as Western countries are not making it easy for Lebanese citizens to obtain visas.
“Lebanon will always hold a special place in my heart, but at the same time I feel sad when I think of the situation there,” El Feghaly says. “It’s forcing its best people to move to other countries looking for a future we’re no longer finding there.”