Taha Riz has worked just three days in more than a month at his Tripoli bakery, in Lebanon’s neglected north where economic meltdown has hit hardest and plunged thousands like him into precarious poverty.
The bakery, like Tripoli itself, survived earlier hardship when sectarian tensions fuelled by the war in neighboring Syria exploded into clashes on the street outside, but its ovens are now cold and its shelves hold only two bags of flour.
A victim of Lebanon’s economic collapse, Riz says the bakery has slashed its workforce from 25 to two, and he has worked only three days since a religious holiday in mid-May – most recently baking two trays of sweets worth 50,000 Lebanese pounds, or just $3.30 on the informal market.
“We used to work, now we borrow and spend,” says the 33-year-old father of two daughters, whose wife is expecting a third child soon.
The bakery which used to order flour by the ton now buys supplies like sugar and ghee in small bags of a few kilos, after demand for its sweet pastries evaporated and people cut their spending to the bare essentials.
“Unfortunately north Lebanon has been hit much more than the other parts of Lebanon. The situation there is very dramatic,” said Bujar Hoxha, Lebanon director for the relief organization Care International. He said large numbers of businesses had shut and jobs had been wiped out.
Even for those still in work, salaries in dollar terms are worth only a tenth of their 2019 level, while food prices rise relentlessly. The World Bank says Lebanon’s economic collapse is one of the world’s sharpest implosions in modern history.
The caretaker government says it can no longer use foreign reserves to subsidize food and fuel. It hopes to offer financial support to poorer families as it reduces subsidies, but may not have the resources or political authority to deliver it.
Across the country, the proportion of people living in poverty and needing food assistance may hit 70 percent this year, Hoxha said, forcing aid groups to urgently refocus their operations.
“When Care International entered Lebanon we actually entered to support Syrian refugees,” he said.
After nearly a decade helping Syrians, the organization saw the Lebanese crisis emerging two years ago. “We readjusted our strategies and reoriented our resources,” he said.
The spike in poverty has hit young and old alike.
Shadi Lababidi, 16, left school more than a year ago to work full-time repairing car components, saying he wanted to help his parents through difficult times.
“I’m happy at work but it would be better if I was at school. I’m working to help my family,” he said at the workshop where he fixes fiberglass car body parts. “Everything’s expensive and a dollar is 15,000 pounds. Even a packet of crisps costs 2,000 pounds.”
He says he earns between 75,000 and 100,000 pounds a week – or less than $7. His life revolves around work and sleep, but he dreams of getting out of Tripoli to see his country, from the ancient city of Baalbek in the Bekaa valley to the famed cedar trees in Lebanon’s mountains.
“I want to have a permanent job which is decent, to get some money to help my parents, to live like other people instead of living this miserable life”.
In a one-room ground floor apartment, 73-year-old Nuzha Hamza lives with her unemployed son and her daughter who has Down’s Syndrome.
A survivor of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, she now tries to make money sorting and packing bunches of vine leaves for grocers, earning 2,000 pounds (13 cents) per kilo. “If I have (money) I eat. If I don’t, I don’t eat,” she says.
Like others hit by the scale and speed of Lebanon’s breakdown, she increasingly relies on aid to get by, receiving monthly cash support from Care while Lebanon’s politicians fail to agree even the first step to help - forming a new government to tackle the crisis.
“It’s like a kingdom of absence - absence of institutional support towards citizens,” Hoxha said of the political paralysis which has prompted the relief sector to step into the vacuum and provide emergency aid.
“This feels like a post-conflict situation, as if there had been a war two, four or six weeks ago. There are no mechanisms, no institutions.”