Flight or fight
I saw my friend to the airport the other day and watched wistfully as she and her husband checked in their many pieces of luggage. I felt numb and had nothing to say except to wish her well in her new life abroad. This wasn’t the first friend that I had found myself bidding farewell to recently. She was the eighth in only three months.
Economists say that 14,000 people – most of them young – are leaving Lebanon every month. With a $25-billion deficit, a high unemployment rate, low salaries and an economy on the verge of collapse, Lebanese are leaving in droves for the Gulf states, the US, Britain, Canada, Australia – whoever accepts them.
Embassies can’t keep up with immigration applications. Queues at the Canadian embassy are long and seem never-ending. For some reason, Canada seems to be a favourite destination. The word in town is that it’s easier to emigrate to Canada than the US or Britain. Australia comes a close second. But it’s actually not that easy. Many are refused immigration papers.
Con artists, eager to cash in on this ‘urge to emigrate’, are having a field day. For a fee of $3,000 - $5,000, they promise to procure the desperately sought immigration papers. At least one of my friends was taken in. At 25, Shadi began to worry about saving enough money to get married one day.
‘I’ll never afford to have a home at this rate,’ he told me. His small-appliance shop earned him about $500 every month. With costs skyrocketing in the country, $500 barely lasts a week. ‘How can I support a wife and family?’ he lamented.
That’s when he met Maher, who offered to get Shadi into Canada within two months. Shadi immediately sold his shop and gave Maher just under $5,000. That was the last he heard of Maher. Today, Shadi is driving a taxi cab. Unfortunately for him, not many people can afford to hire cabs any longer.
When con artists don’t come through, illegal immigration becomes an option. Many young people have found an underground network into the United States. At least one person I heard of was shot as he tried to cross over. Others are currently serving terms in US jails. Still, it doesn’t seem to deter people from illegal attempts to enter foreign countries.
‘I have to try,’ a 24-year-old man confided. He has been unemployed for years. ‘If I’m caught, I’m caught. But it’s better than staying here doing nothing, isn’t it?’
Others who have no hope of emigrating have resorted to illegal businesses within Lebanon itself. In the Bekaa valley, farmers have gone back to growing hashish. The weed was their main source of income during the 16-year civil war. Its cultivation, however, came to an abrupt halt in 1991 when, bending to an international outcry, the Lebanese and Syrian governments decided to eradicate the narcotic. The international community at that point promised $54 million over two years with the aim of finding alternative crops and creating much-needed irrigation networks for farmers. Ten years later, only a tiny proportion of the promised funds has trickled through.
The farmers have practically been forgotten and, with the Lebanese economy worsening, families in the Bekaa have become desperate. For the past few years, they have been threatening to go back to growing hashish if alternatives were not found. This year, they have done so. The crop is growing everywhere – in their backyards and even beside the main road. The Government is threatening to eradicate it. But this time, farmers have armed themselves and have sworn to protect their crops.
‘What are we supposed to do?’ said Abu Mohammed as he showed me around his hashish field. ‘How am I supposed to care for my family? I don’t want to grow hashish. Give me something else to grow, give me water and buy the products from me. I will then eradicate the hashish field myself.’
I couldn’t blame him. And I can’t blame my many friends who have left the country or the others who are currently packing their bags to follow them. Most of them are young couples. For the first time, this summer, our fun-filled weekends at the beach or camping with friends have ceased.
‘No-one is around any more,’ grumbled my husband.
It’s true, no-one is. And my worst fear is that the country will take so long to pick itself up that my friends will be too settled abroad ever to return.