Social crisis

When Lebanon bids goodbye to its youth

Young Lebanese have experienced it all this past year: the euphoria of a revolution of which they were the beating heart, the hangover of the aftermath that hit them hard, the consequences of the financial crisis, and the feeling that they are left with no other choice but to leave. This is the story of a disillusioned youth in a country that has nothing left to offer them

When Lebanon bids goodbye to its youth

A young woman at a demonstration in Beirut in June 2020. (OLJ/João Sousa)

Editor's note: This article was supposed to appear in the Aug. 5 issue of L’Orient-Le Jour. It told the story of a disillusioned youth in a country with nothing left to offer. “Does this still make sense after the explosion at the port that ravaged Beirut on Aug. 4?” editorial staff wondered. We thought so — maybe even more than before.

BEIRUT — Today, more than ever before, Lebanese youth feel like they have been taken hostage, with the great majority thinking only of leaving.

This includes those “golden” youths who spent their summers in Faqra and their weekends in the most upscale guesthouses in the country, those for whom the crisis (almost) did not exist. And those privileged few who have access to “fresh dollars,” for whom life in Lebanon has never been so cheap.

“The day after the [Beirut port] explosion, my husband and I made up our mind: to pack our bags and go to Dubai,” says Nayla, 35, who had hoped to be able to stay in Lebanon until at least the end of the year, despite the crisis.

“It was the first time that I felt my daughters were in danger and that there was nothing I could do to protect them,” she says with a lump in her throat.

Marc, a 31-year-old director who asked that his name be changed for this article, shares similar sentiments: “The explosion has reinforced my desire to leave the country as soon as possible, to go somewhere where we are not constantly traumatized.”

The shock is all the stronger as young Lebanese have long given the impression of living in denial.

Rewind to June 2016

It is 10 p.m. Clustered around the long pool of an opulent seaside resort in Kaslik, some 500 students sway to the music of Drake and Rihanna.

The scene is common: it is a summer evening like so many others, where the smell of alcohol lingers in the long strands of cigarette smoke and the scent of sea spray.

But that evening, these young people toasted their future. “I had just graduated and was about to start my working life. My future looked bright,” Jad, now 24, recalls. “I had so much hope,” he sighs.

Often disappointed and sometimes disconnected, young Lebanese bear the trauma of a Lebanon that has not taken the time to make peace with its past.

In a country that has been politically frozen since the end of the Civil War, many young people have made the choice to live day-to-day and to take full advantage of the little that Lebanon can offer them — even if this means projecting a reductive and unflattering image.

A large part of the Lebanese youth still give the impression that they have nothing else on their minds but partying everywhere and all the time, or leaving the country as soon as possible or making something of themselves here thanks to their family connections. The more affluent among them set the tone with their extravagant evenings, their luxury clothes and the latest phone in hand.

On the rare occasions when politics knocks at the door, such as in student elections, the traditional parties have, until recently, dominated, reinforcing the feeling that the younger generation has no desire to break with the Lebanon of their forebears.

The conditions, however, are far from ideal. For new graduates, stepping into adulthood has been an obstacle course. Some are already weighed down by the debt they incurred to gain access to a university system dominated by the private sector. And all of them are on the way to being confronted with youth unemployment which officially stands at 36 percent.

In theory, all the elements have already been there for a collective surge for change in a country that offers no prospects for the future where the average age of the population is 26 years old.

And yet, in 2016, people still praised the “resilience” of a Lebanon that had been without a president for two years. That year, growth fluctuated between 1 and 1.8 percent, but a breath of fresh air was blowing on the political scene.

The unprecedented arrival of Beirut Madinati marks the first steps of civil society in the race for municipal elections in the capital, attracting some of the younger generations who wish to break with community dynamics and free themselves from family affiliations or partisan sympathies.

Although Beirut Madinati does not measure up to the camps of March 8 and March 14, the group’s results, 30 percent of the vote, was beyond symbolic. This widened the breach caused a year earlier by the “You Stink” movement, whose mission was to denounce the political inertia and corruption of the authorities in managing that year’s garbage crisis.

The chain of events signals a desire for renewal, but attempts at change collide with a resilient and well-oiled system. Civil society won one seat only in the 2018 legislative elections as part of the youth fell back into community mindsets or were simply not interested in politics.

The vote, however, was met with strong abstention, with a turnout of just 49.2 percent of registered voters, compared to 54 percent in the previous elections, nine years earlier.

“I thought the 2018 elections would make it possible to improve things … but everything only got worse: unemployment, racism, injustice and corruption,” laments Khaled, a 27-year-old engineer from Tripoli.

‘It was the first time that I felt that my voice was being heard’

The seeds sown in the past years will eventually sprout. In the process, new movements highlighting socio-economic demands emerge and offer alternatives to the suffocating young people who no longer recognize themselves in the discourse of traditional parties. It will not be until Oct. 17, 2019, that the frustrations and anger of young people explode.

Coming from all walks of life, the youth are at the forefront of nationwide protests sweeping the country. The slogan “Killun yaani killun,” Arabic for “All of them means all of them,” suddenly allows one to think of all the possibilities and of what was (almost) unthinkable: the hope of reinventing the Lebanon of tomorrow.

“It was about time we put politicians in their place,” Nay, 22, says.

For the first time, young people gather day and night in tents pitched in the country’s public squares; they discover each other and are full of ideas on how to build “what comes next.”

The newcomers join those whose political awakening began in 2015 with the garbage crisis. For a revolution, the atmosphere is friendly and the party never far away: they sing revolutionary songs at the top of their lungs, dance in the squares amidst corn vendors while lanterns once again light the streets of downtown Beirut that have been neglected for years.

The fall of Saad Hariri’s government of national unity, after 12 days of protests, bolsters the demonstrators’ ambitions, encouraging them to continue to hit the streets.

“It was the first time that I felt I had a say in what was happening, that my voice was being heard,” Marc says.

“There was a month or two of euphoria, during which we took hold of the country and of our Lebanese identity. I thought we were going to be the generation that could make a difference,” he says, his throat tight with emotion.

Realizing that they were not comes like a slap to the face. The jubilation and hope of the first few weeks give way to disillusion and distress.

The sharp drop of the lira, along with banking restrictions and political blockages, and compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, crosses out the colorful future that they had allowed themselves to catch a glimpse of.

With political stagnation, massive inflation and shortages of basic necessities, history seems to be repeating itself.

“My grandfather retired during the Civil War and received a pittance for his end-of-service indemnity after 40 years of work in a public institution, due the inflation at the time. Today, all my father’s savings are gone up in smoke after he has worked hard all his life,” Marc laments.

“How can I be sure that the same won’t happen to me in 30 years? The grandchildren of these same politicians, who have held the reins of power in the country for decades, are now coming to power, that’s enough!” he says angrily.

‘I am leaving because my parents have voted for the same parties for 30 years’

The young generation has only one word to say: leave, quickly and to somewhere far away. This was something their parents or grandparents did not do or did not dare to do.

“I realized that I could not achieve my goals if I stayed. I could not marry my fiancee and would not advance in my career,” says Khaled, who left for good at the end of August. He went to France for a second master’s degree.

Marc, who is applying for emigration to Germany, Canada or the US, says, “My parents are about to just throw me on a plane. They are thoroughly following up on the procedure, asking me day and night where I’m at in my application.”

“And yet, they still support certain political parties. They don’t even realize that I’m leaving because they have voted for the same parties for 30 years,” he laments.

The figures are not encouraging to convince young people to bet on staying and building a future in Lebanon, where opportunities have become increasingly rare.

Almost one-third of private sector employees lost their jobs in 2019, according to a report in July by Infopro, a research and polling firm. One in five companies has gone out of business since last year, 50 percent of them in 2020. More than half of the 500 companies surveyed said they had reduced their employees’ salaries or their working hours.

The unemployment rate is exploding: it now exceeds 30 percent, compared to 11.4 percent last year, according to a study by the Central Administration of Statistics completed in March 2019.

“When we presented our application back in September to get a permanent resident card in Canada, it was only supposed to be our plan B, which we hoped we wouldn’t have to use,” says Caren, a 32-year-old former digital project manager.

For this mother of young twins and her husband, both paid in lira, instability and the economic impact resulting from the devaluation of the local currency hastened their decision to leave everything once they get their papers in January.

According to the latest figures, 55 percent of Lebanese live below the poverty line and 23 percent in extreme poverty.

“I think that we are living in a more critical and more dire situation than we did during the war and under the bombs,” says Choghig Kasparian, a professor at Saint Joseph University in Beirut and the former director of the school’s University Observatory of Social and Economic Reality.

Here again, history seems to repeat itself for a nation that has already experienced several major waves of emigration, with its share of heartbreak each time.

With some 15 million Lebanese living abroad, including descendants of immigrants who do not have citizenship, the Lebanese diaspora is today one of the largest in the world in proportion to its population.

“The Lebanese economy has never been able to absorb the trained and qualified workforce. Part of Lebanon’s workforce has always been abroad. This is not something new,” says Kasparian.

While family departures between 1975 and the 1990s were largely the result of the Civil War, the economic situation has been the primary reason for emigration over the past two decades.

According to a study commissioned by the European Commission and carried out between 2014 and 2018, 16 percent of Lebanese aged between 15 and 29 wanted to emigrate, namely because of the dire living conditions and low wages.

“Before, the difficulty was to have money or a scholarship and an entry visa for the chosen destination,” says Kasparian. “Add to this today the problem of getting around the banking restrictions to be able to finance your departure,” she adds.

‘I want to give my children what I couldn’t have’

Caren and her husband experienced this bitterly as the crisis forced them to reconsider their plans. “We thought we would arrive in Canada with a sum of money that could last us a year. We had to eventually trade everything on the black market, which left us with only a quarter of the amount we had at the beginning,” she says.

“I feel frustrated and stuck here,” explains Nay, stranded in Lebanon since last October. She was supposed to be in the US for a master’s degree this year.

“I felt this frustration when airports had been closed in an effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic. Now that it is possible to travel to pursue my studies, I can’t afford it anymore,” she adds.

Young people with dual citizenship are one step ahead of their compatriots, who must go through endless visa application procedures.

“Everyone’s asking me how we did it, and if we hired a lawyer. I’m in a WhatsApp group for Lebanese who are getting ready to go to Canada. In September, the group had 50 members. Today, it is full. Two other groups were created, one for those who are preparing their papers, and another one for those who already presented their application,” Caren explains.

There are also the diehards, those who want to stay at all costs, who cannot imagine their lives elsewhere and want to fight to change the country.

This is the case of Rafif, a 26-year-old translator who lives in Nabatieh. “My husband and I never really considered leaving Lebanon. Our lives are here: our friends, families and jobs,” she explains.

“We now live day by day; we don’t know what the future will hold for our children. Honestly, we try not to think about it too much, so we don’t get depressed,” the young woman adds.

Others want to keep on hoping. “I believe in the revolution so much, what we started in October only continues now,” says Tala Ladki, a 25-year-old from Beirut who works as a freelancer in social media and advertising. “Things don’t change overnight. It takes years to achieve concrete and tangible reforms,” she adds.

But those holding on to Lebanon remain few, as the country loses its most vital forces at a time it needs them the most.

What’s worse, those who are currently leaving do not plan to return. “If I go away with the idea of coming back, I won’t be happy, neither here nor there,” Caren says.

“Above all, I want to give my children what I could not have: a passport other than the Lebanese one and the possibility of being able to do whatever they want to do, regardless of religious affiliations or wasta [connections],” she adds.

Nay feels similarly. “Even if I say that I hate Lebanon for its economic and political aspects, all my ties are here, my friends, my family. But I will not come back. There is no future for me here. I would live anywhere except here,” she says.

This article originally appeared in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Sahar Ghoussoub.

Editor's note: This article was supposed to appear in the Aug. 5 issue of L’Orient-Le Jour. It told the story of a disillusioned youth in a country with nothing left to offer. “Does this still make sense after the explosion at the port that ravaged Beirut on Aug. 4?” editorial staff wondered. We thought so — maybe even more than before.BEIRUT — Today, more than ever before,...