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Expats fill suitcases with medicine, cash for families in Lebanon

  • July 22, 2021

Beirut, Lebanon – 23-year-old Hadi Chalhoub emigrated from Lebanon to Atlanta, Georgia, just days after the Beirut Port explosion last August.

Almost one year later, the interior architect returned to the crisis-ridden country to see family and friends, his suitcase filled to the brim with painkillers, diabetes medicine, eye drops, and other pills and tablets.

“I had to put the meds in small bottles so they all fit,” Chalhoub told Al Jazeera. “It was a huge bag of medicine.”

In less than two years, Lebanon’s economy has been brought to the brink of collapse. The devaluation of the Lebanese pound – which has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar since late 2019 – and a lack of foreign currency have made it difficult for Lebanese importers to pay foreign suppliers, which has led to severe shortages in medicines and other goods.

Horrified by news of the country’s spiralling economic crisis, compounded by fuel shortages and long daily power outages, Lebanese expats visiting home have stuffed their suitcases with life-saving medicine, hygiene products, baby formula, diapers, and even power banks for their families.

Many are also carrying US dollars, a rare but ever so valuable commodity in cash-strapped Lebanon, where half the population now lives in poverty.

On top of that, Lebanon has been without a full-fledged government for more than 11 months.

The World Bank says the Lebanese economic crisis is among the three most severe the world has ever seen since the mid-19th century.

Hadi Chalhoub, 23, returned to Lebanon from the US with his suitcase filled to the brim with painkillers, diabetes medicine, eye drops, and other pills and tablets [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]


Brussels-based doctor Philippe Aftimos, 39, is trying to secure a “year’s worth” of medication for his parents and younger sister ahead of a visit home to Lebanon. His suitcase is filled with an assortment of medicines, including for cholesterol, hypertension, depression.

“I don’t want to live in the anxiety of uncertainty [over my family’s health],” the doctor told Al Jazeera.

“It’s been two years since I last visited … I am obviously very worried about the situation.”

Aftimos follows the worsening developments from afar. “I have a heartbreak every morning,” he said.

Meanwhile, in addition to a few bags of medicine for her family, 35-year-old programmer Mireille Raad is also bringing home extra painkillers and multi-vitamin tablets to donate to families in need when she visits her family soon.

She anxiously follows the news from Washington, DC, and hears harrowing stories from friends and family over WhatsApp.

“I’m still worried about customs at the airport stopping me because of how much medicine I’m carrying,” Raad told Al Jazeera.

Mireille Raad, 35, from Washington, DC, is bringing home extra painkillers and multi-vitamin tablets to donate to families in need when she visits her family [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Expat economy

Lebanon heavily relies on remittances from millions of its expats around the world to keep its economy afloat – among the highest level in the Middle East and North Africa.

In 2018, these remittances from expats were equal to almost 13 percent of the country’s entire gross domestic product. Now, the authorities hope that expats and tourists could provide a lifeline by spending money in the country’s crisis-hit economy.

Political leaders have explicitly called on expats to visit and spend money in Lebanon.

President Michel Aoun in late June said the Lebanese diaspora has a “role in helping revitalise the economy”.

Caretaker Prime Minister Hasan Diab also expressed hope that tourists and Lebanese expats would flock back to the cash-strapped country to stimulate its struggling market with hard currency.

But some argue it is just a ploy to buy more time, as Lebanon remains without a full-fledged government since last August, with no wholesale economic recovery plan put in place.

Negotiations with the International Monetary Fund to implement a rescue plan fell through in July 2020, and the international community continues to withhold development aid unless Lebanon implements economic and structural reforms.

Postdoctoral research fellow in finance at University College Dublin Mohamad Faour believes the authorities use remittances as “just another morphine shot” to Lebanon’s spiralling economic system.

“[Prioritising remittances] means refocusing on these short-term remedies at the expense of a credible financial plan and solution,” Faour told Al Jazeera.

“It’s a lease of life on a system that should go bust.”

Anger and resentment

Many of Lebanon’s diaspora across the world have not been home since late 2019, when anti-government protests rocked the country.

At that time there was a brief period of hope and optimism that the Lebanese could bring down their ruling political parties, which they say are corrupt and have mismanaged public funds and resources at the people’s expense.

Ramsey Nasser, a 34-year-old software developer in Brooklyn, New York, says his only source of optimism now is recent anti-establishment gains at engineering syndicate and university student elections.

But as Nasser packs cash and power banks for family, friends, and charities, he admits feeling “powerless” watching things unfold from afar.

“It’s like watching a loved one die slowly of an incurable disease,” he said. “I am heartbroken that the country continues to haemorrhage people and minds by making their lives intolerable.”

As the economy continues to worsen, many young professionals are opting to leave the country in what has been described as a “brain drain”.

Poorer families have opted to make a perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea to Cyprus, hoping for an opportunity to settle in Europe.

If the Lebanese security agencies do not intercept these crowded rafts – or if they have not sunk on the way – the Cypriot authorities forcibly send them back.

Chalhoub feels lucky that he was able to find an opportunity in the United States. He hopes his friends and family still in Lebanon can join him.

“I don’t see why or even how they could stay here. There is no reason,” he said angrily.

“Even the basics – gas, water, electricity – it’s not available. I just don’t get it!”

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