One day in the spring of 2021, Akram Johari decided to pack up and leave for Iraq, which has recently become a new land of opportunity for Lebanese looking for a better life as their country sinks into an unprecedented deep crisis.
The Lebanese national currency has seen its value melt by almost 90 percent since 2019. The monthly minimum wage of LL675,000 is worth little more than $30 on the parallel market. About 80 percent of the population now lives below the poverty line, according to the United Nations.
Johari, 42, ran a restaurant near Beirut. When he left a year ago, his income was worth no more than $100. “I didn’t have enough time to look for a job in the Gulf and I had to decide quickly. That’s why I came to Baghdad and started looking for work through Instagram,” says the father.
For the past month, Akram has been managing a restaurant in Baghdad and his salary finally allows him to support his family back in Lebanon. Iraq and Lebanon are culturally close and share the same language, despite dialectal differences. But, above all, when they arrive in Iraq, the Lebanese obtain a visa that is valid for more than a month and easily renewable.
‘The movement has increased’
According to Iraqi authorities, more than 20,000 Lebanese traveled to Iraq between June 2021 and February 2022, not counting pilgrims visiting the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
“The movement has recently increased,” Ali Habhab, Lebanon's ambassador to Baghdad, told AFP. The diplomat believes that the health sector is particularly affected with “dozens of Lebanese doctors working in Iraqi hospitals.”
At first glance, Iraq appears to be an unusual choice of destination to rebuild one’s life. After the war against Iran (1980-88), the American-led invasion in 2003, the civil war of 2006-09, then the Daesh (Islamic State) offensive in 2014 and finally the widespread protest movement in late 2019, Iraq does not convey the image of a land of promise. Yet, since Baghdad proclaimed its “victory” against Daesh in late 2017, the country has returned to relative stability.
The Lebanese “know the Iraqi environment well,” notes Iraqi economist Ali al-Rawi. “There is a lot of space for Lebanese companies because most foreign companies are afraid to invest.”
But the image is misleading. Many Iraqis are being hit hard by the economic and social crisis. In a country where 90 percent of income comes from oil, youth unemployment is 40 percent and a third of the 40 million Iraqis live in poverty. Thousands of Iraqis are seeking to leave their country, as the wave of Kurdish migration to Europe last fall and winter demonstrated.
Lebanese who move to Iraq tend to work in the service and health sectors. There are more than 900 Lebanese companies in Iraq. Most of them are active in the fields of tourism, catering or health.
Before the crisis, Iraqis often went to Lebanon to consult doctors who were much better equipped than at home. But with the economic crisis, “a lot of doctors have left Lebanon,” says Michael Cherfan, Lebanese manager of an ophthalmology center in Beirut that has opened a branch in Baghdad.
The opening of the Iraqi branch last year saved Iraqi patients the trip to Beirut. But it is also a good way for Lebanese doctors to make up for the financial losses they suffer by staying in Lebanon. “Our doctors come here [to Baghdad] in turn. Every week, one or two doctors come to do tests and operate on patients,” says Cherfan.
The money, however, even if it allows him and his family to live, is not enough for Johari, who travels at least once a month to Lebanon to see his family. “I am sad [while in Iraq] not to have my two-month-old daughter by my side,” he sighs.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour.
One day in the spring of 2021, Akram Johari decided to pack up and leave for Iraq, which has recently become a new land of opportunity for Lebanese looking for a better life as their country sinks into an unprecedented deep crisis.The Lebanese national currency has seen its value melt by almost 90 percent since 2019. The monthly minimum wage of LL675,000 is worth little more than $30 on the...