Lebanon

Impossible choices in a collapsing country

In the middle of a small house in Akkar, northern Lebanon, you’ll find a handmade swing hanging from the ceiling. It belongs to nine-month-old Aisha. There are no playgrounds nearby, so her parents crafted this swing. It is the only distraction in this bare and dilapidated house.

Ahmad, a 39-year-old Lebanese man, lives here with his wife and three children. He tells us how it feels to not be able to provide for his children anymore as a result of the ongoing crises in Lebanon.

“We ran out of diapers for the baby today,” he says. “I told my wife we should use a plastic bag. There is no other option than to steal, and that’s out of the question for me, but that is life right now.”

A downward spiral

Ahmad’s situation has worsened dramatically in recent years. He is worried that the country and his family’s living conditions will continue to go downhill.

“I used to work, and I could afford rent and food. Today, we can’t even get a bottle of cooking oil – and when we do, we have to keep it for three months,” he explains.

“In the past, 20,000 liras were worth something. Today 300,000 liras have no value. Things were less complicated than today.”

In 2019, the Lebanese currency equalled 1,500 liras for $1 USD. Today, the rate is over 27,000 liras.

Running out of options

This year, Ahmad has been forced to take his two daughters out of school because he can no longer afford the costs. For the school bus alone, he needs 800,000 liras per month. This is 18 per cent more than the average monthly minimum wage in Lebanon. 

“Not sending them to school is beyond my control,” he says. “When I see [my children] at home, it makes me unhappy. Everything worries me. When your daughter asks you for something, and you can't make it happen, you feel very upset.”

Read caption Ahmad’s home is bare and dilapidated. He had to sell much of the furniture to cover his family’s basic needs. Photo: Sherbel Dissi/NRC

Ahmad believes that the situation in Lebanon is approaching rock bottom. The economic and political crisis that is sweeping the country has left him with nothing but pain as he thinks about how to meet the ever-growing needs of his family.

I am unable to provide diapers for my daughter. I had to sell the heater in exchange for one bag of diapers. I only say that I am hungry to God.

To secure diapers for his nine-month-old baby, Ahmad had to sell the old heater, which was supposed to keep them warm this winter. Options are running out – he’s already sold the bedroom furniture for a pittance to cover his family’s basic needs.

“I prefer death”

To complicate matters further, Ahmad’s health is not good. For the last three months, he hasn’t taken any of the daily medication he needs. Then, only a few days before we spoke to him, the Lebanese government announced it was removing almost all subsidies for medicine.

“I have high blood pressure and diabetes, and for the past three months, I have not taken a single pill,” he says.

“Two days ago, I went to the pharmacy to get an insulin injection. The pharmacist told me that it cost 108,000 pounds. I told him I preferred death. I cannot buy it at this price. I also suffer from dyslipidemia [abnormal levels of cholesterol], and medicine is not even available here.”

Ahmad could not afford his medicine even before the recent price rise. Now he is wondering, pointing at a small box of painkillers, how he will cope.

“Do you know how much painkillers are? 40,000 pounds. You go to another pharmacy, you find it for 35,000, and another one you find it for 60,000.”

Read caption “I suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure. I haven’t taken any medication in the past three months. I simply cannot afford it,” says Ahmad. Photo: Sherbel Dissi/NRC

Poverty is the new normal

The situation that Ahmad’s family finds itself in is similar to many poor families in the country today. Their lives changed dramatically after the so-called “17 October Revolution” of 2019, when Lebanese people across the country rose up to protest against poor living standards and corruption.

In Lebanon, nothing is right. There is no need to ask about Lebanon. This is a country full of corruption. The end of this crisis the country is going through is death.

Ahmad’s life before the protests was “normal”, in his own words. A construction worker, he worked hard every day to pay the rent and other family expenses including food and education-related costs for his two daughters.

But his challenges began to increase when he sustained a hand injury at work, forcing him to retire from his regular job.

“I used to work in construction, but after the surgery I couldn’t work anymore,” says Ahmad.

“Today I’m recycling and collecting iron tins to sell. I want to feed my family, but I don’t force myself to do anything wrong. If I save a loaf of bread and an olive, I thank God.”

Crisis in Lebanon

By March 2021, 78 per cent of the Lebanese population – some 3 million people – were living below the poverty line, according to UN estimates. Extreme poverty had reached 36 per cent. This means that 1.38 million Lebanese people were unable to afford the basic goods and services considered necessary for survival.

Due to the unprecedented economic crisis, tens of thousands of desperate parents now have to choose between an education for their children or feeding the family.

Read caption Ahmad suffers from severe anxiety. The only time he can forget about his worries, he says, is when he is playing with his baby daughter. Photo: Sherbel Dissi/NRC

In Ahmad’s opinion, the political crisis in Lebanon is the main reason for what is happening to him and to many families in Lebanon. There is no time to think about the future. The only time he can forget about his worries is when he is playing with his baby daughter Aisha.

Just a normal house

Ahmad’s home is in poor condition.

“As you can see, this is not a suitable home for children,” he says. “Is this what a house looks like? But thank God, our condition is better than most. Many families do not have a roof to sleep under.”

Read caption Ahmad’s living conditions are precarious. To secure diapers and other essential equipment for his baby daughter, he recently had to sell a much-needed heater. Photo: Sherbel Dissi/NRC

But things have changed recently. With support from Germany through the German development bank KfW, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) is renovating Ahmad’s house. In return, the landlord will allow Ahmad’s family to stay in the house for one year rent-free.

“I’ve been living in this house for six years. My landlord is a very good person who is patient with me. I was never late on rent in my life and he always reminds me of that,” says Ahmad.

The assistance will help relieve some financial pressure from Ahmad’s family and allow them to prioritise other needs such as healthcare and education.

“I had to sell our home furniture to buy food. I needed money to buy food and that was my only option. By renovating the house and paying the rent for a year, I can at least think about buying food. Without this support, that would not be possible. Better this than beg for money," says Ahmad.

“I want nothing in my life but a normal house that I can rent, to work and provide for my family. That’s all I want.”

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