Lebanese seek to fly out of dire economic situation as Beirut airport reopens

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When Ziad Moutran, a Lebanese architect, returned to Lebanon after five years working in Montreal, he thought he was coming home for good.

But now, a year and a half after that homecoming, he’s preparing to head back across the Atlantic, fleeing skyrocketing inflation and an increasingly unstable political situation in Lebanon.

At 48, Moutran has lived through Lebanon’s civil war and multiple other periods of crisis. After mass anti-government protests broke out last October, he joined them, hoping that they could bring about change. But now, he’s not hopeful that it will come, or at least not soon enough.

“I sacrificed a lot here, and I cannot sacrifice another five years before the country gets a little better,” he told Al Arabiya English. “…Today is bad, tomorrow is worse, and the day after is going to be worse. We have to be realistic.”

As Lebanon prepares to reopen its airport July 1 and travel becomes possible again following a three-and-a-half-month closure amid the coronavirus pandemic, many Lebanese are planning their exit.

Read more: Lebanon from golden age to economic crisis, new data shows rise and fall: Report

Emigration is nothing new for Lebanon. Even before the current economic crisis, which has seen the real value of the Lebanese lira deteriorate from the official rate of about 1,500 lira to the dollar to about 8,000 to the dollar on the black market, job opportunities for skilled young people were scarce.

A demonstrator, wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus, carries a national flag during a protest in cars against a controversial amnesty draft law. (File photo: Reuters)
A demonstrator, wearing a mask as a preventive measure against the spread of the coronavirus, carries a national flag during a protest in cars against a controversial amnesty draft law. (File photo: Reuters)

According to a 2017 report by Lebanese bank Credit Libanais, at the end of 2015, there were some 798,140 Lebanese emigrants abroad. The remittances they sent back totaled around $7.31 billion as of the end of 2016, representing 14.10 percent of GDP.

Looking to leave

But now, as inflation and unemployment accelerate, along with increasing political tensions that have raised fears of violence, even Lebanese who had firmly resisted emigrating before are preparing to pack their bags.

Salam Abdel Samad, an immigration attorney in Beirut, said that in the weeks since the countrywide COVID-19 lockdown was eased, he has received 20-25 calls a day from people inquiring about immigration options and taking five or six appointments in his office. That’s about double the rate from before the crisis, he said.

And where before many of those wanting to emigrate were fresh graduates in search of career opportunities, Abdel Samad said, “Now, no, now families are looking at immigration.” And rather than traveling for a job, he said, they are looking for stability.

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“Really we are expecting many, many, people to take [to] the airport with a one-way ticket and to not be back,” he said.

Charbel, 35, is one of the Lebanese who, until now, had never thought he would go abroad.

Charbel, who asked to be identified only by his first name because his employer is not aware of his plans, has a wife and two-year-old daughter and a job in the banking sector that allowed the family to live comfortably, if not in luxury, before the lira collapsed.

“For me it was more than enough, especially that I’m near my parents and near my brother and sisters, and my wife, as well, is near her family, so I never thought of leaving,” he said.

But now, worried about their own future and their daughter’s, he and his wife are applying for immigration; their first choice is Australia, then the United States and Canada.

Although he is set on leaving, Charbel said, “I’m still thinking about the many things I will be losing if I want to quit the country for good, especially that my parents are here – we are a very close family with my brother and sisters. We gather often all together around the table and have dinner or lunch.”

It’s not only the economic situation that has them ready to leave; Charbel said he’s also fearful of the possibility of instability turning to war and wants a Plan B.

“I don’t have hope (for a future in Lebanon) currently, now at this moment,” he said. “I can’t see it. I can’t find any other solution.”

Escape routes

Meanwhile those, like Moutran, who have a second nationality, are planning their moves and applying for visas for family members – in Moutran’s case, for his mother.

Moutrain applied for and got citizenship in Canada to have an escape route just in case of such a crisis, but now he’s using it reluctantly.

“I’m very sad, because I love it here in all terms,” he said. “I love Canada too – I mean, Montreal was very good to me, but it doesn’t compare. I was raised here.”

Dalia Abirafeh is another dual citizen planning to leave.

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Abirafeh is a Lebanese-American who grew up in the US and came to Lebanon for university. She fell in love with the country and then with her now-husband, who is from her family’s hometown of Aley. She has been living in Lebanon since 2011 and now has two small children.

Abirafeh said until recently, her husband, who owns a car mechanic garage, had never been interested in leaving Lebanon. But as the situation began to deteriorate, he agreed to apply for a green card. For her own part, Abirafeh said after the mass protests began last year, she was ready to leave, fearing political instability; meanwhile, the currency situation has pushed her husband over the edge.

A man walks at American University of Beirut's campus (AUB), as one of the Arab world's oldest universities faces its worst crisis since its foundation, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 7, 2020. (Reuters)
A man walks at American University of Beirut's campus (AUB), as one of the Arab world's oldest universities faces its worst crisis since its foundation, in Beirut, Lebanon, May 7, 2020. (Reuters)

“He loves Lebanon, but he’s gotten to a point where he’s completely fed up,” Abirafeh said. “Every year he would say, ‘Let’s wait, it will get better, maybe it will get better, we’re stable, we’re fine.’ And then this year, it was just like the final straw, he was like, ‘I’m done.’”

They are waiting for the US Embassy to reopen to complete the final steps in the application process and are planning to leave Lebanon within a few months.

Brain drain

While the expected exodus might mean an increase in remittances from abroad, experts said it will also drain much-needed human resources from the country.

Kamal Badr, associate dean of medical education at the American University of Beirut (AUB), has been part of an effort to coax Lebanese expats working in the health field to come back to work at AUB’s medical center, an effort that brought more than 200 physicians back to the country.

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But now, Badr said unless there is a major investment from the international community in saving Lebanon’s economy, along with an overhaul of the political system, “There will be a big reversal of the reversal of the brain drain.”

It’s a pattern the country is all too familiar with, as periods of relative stability and prosperity have been repeatedly interrupted by local or regional crises, sending new waves of emigrants abroad.

Before the latest set of crises hit, Badr said, Lebanon “was poised, really to be the Silicon Valley of this area.”

“It had all the components needed to create a thriving intellectual and business hub – it has good universities, a good climate, it has a city that’s good for young people to live in,” he said. “I think the tragedy here that makes it even worse than it is that the potential is otherwise so great.”

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