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DUBAI: When Lebanese cardiologist Walid Alami, 59, was 19, he volunteered in an emergency operating room and helped dozens of people injured during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
After a massive explosion tore through the port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, he again found himself in the midst of life-saving emergency action.
However, as has been the case for thousands of Lebanese middle-class professionals, the country’s protracted and layered crises ultimately proved too much to bear, forcing him and his family to emigrate in search of security and economic security.
Alami gave up a lucrative cardiology practice in the United States and moved back to Beirut in 2012 so he could be closer to his extended family and his children could experience the nation of their roots.
“I wanted my children to grow up in Lebanon and know their homeland,” he told Arab News. “My hope was to replicate my American practice there, improve the system, innovate and care for patients as I did in the United States.
“But much to my disappointment, things professionally didn’t go as planned because our system is corrupt, including the medical system.”
Undeterred, Alami persisted, hoping that the country’s fortunes would eventually turn around. But poor governance, institutional decay and the country’s economic collapse soon began to strain his family’s finances.
“I started losing money because of the banking system, corruption and declining income,” he said. “Financially and professionally, I was doing worse than ever.”
In 2021, Alami decided enough was enough. He packed his bags again and returned to the United States to reunite with his family. He had far less money in his pockets and more painful memories than a decade earlier.
The lives of her two children have also been affected by Lebanon’s economic collapse. He was struggling to pay college tuition for his 21-year-old daughter Noor, who was studying at NYU in New York. Meanwhile, 18-year-old Jad has been sent to boarding school following the devastating blast at the port.
“It was my dream for them to graduate from the American University of Beirut, but it didn’t happen,” Alami said.
“Over the past few years, I have not been able to generate enough money for a small part of my daughter’s living expenses. I found myself in a position where I could not afford to pay for my children’s school fees from Beirut, especially with the devaluation of the currency and the fact that our funds were seized.
Alami found himself in the position of having to borrow money from his family to help pay for his children’s education.
“I had no choice but to leave. And so, in 2021, I decided to return to the United States,” he said. “I feel like my dreams have been defeated. When I returned to Lebanon, I hoped to give back to my country of origin, to emulate them professionally and socially.
Although Alami and her family were able to return to life in the United States, the events of the past decade continue to affect her life.
“I’m almost 60 and now find myself starting over as a cardiologist,” he said. “But I have to do what I have to do to provide for my family.”
Alami’s story is well known in Lebanon, as this country of approximately 6.7 million people is experiencing one of the largest waves of emigration in its history.
Since 2019, the country has been in the grip of the worst financial crisis in its history, aggravated by the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged political paralysis.
For many Lebanese, the straw that broke the camel’s back was the Beirut port explosion, in which at least 218 people were killed and 7,000 injured. It caused $15 billion in property damage and left an estimated 300,000 people homeless.
Nearly two years later, the country faces a worsening food crisis as war in Ukraine drives up already high staple food prices.
According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s nominal gross domestic product fell from nearly $52 billion in 2019 to $21.8 billion in 2021, a contraction of 58.1%. Unless reforms are enacted soon, real GDP is expected to fall by 6.5% this year.
In May, the black market value of the Lebanese pound fell to a historic low of 35,600 against the US dollar. According to the UN, the financial crisis has plunged 82% of the population below the poverty line since the end of 2019.
May’s parliamentary elections offered a glimmer of hope that things might change. The Lebanese Forces party became the largest Christian party for the first time, while the Hezbollah bloc lost its majority. However, it is not yet clear whether opponents of Hezbollah will be able to form a cohesive and stable coalition capable of implementing administrative and economic reforms.
These simultaneous uncertainties have sent thousands of young Lebanese abroad in search of safety and opportunity, including many of the country’s top health professionals and educators.
According to a February 2022 report by Information International, the number of emigrants increased from 17,721 in 2020 to 79,134 in 2021, its highest rate in five years. The Beirut-based research center identified the emigration rate as “the highest recorded by Lebanon in five years”.
A sharp increase in emigration was also recorded between mid-December 2018 and mid-December 2019, with 66,800 Lebanese emigrating, compared to 33,841 during the same period in 2018.
Historically, many Lebanese have chosen to move to Western Europe, the United States, Australia and the Arab Gulf States. More recently, they have also visited Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Serbia and even Iraq.
According to Iraqi authorities, more than 20,000 people from Lebanon arrived between June 2021 and February 2022, not including pilgrims visiting the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
“The movement (of people) has increased recently,” Ali Habhab, Lebanon’s ambassador to Iraq, told Agence France-Presse news agency. He said the health sector in particular has been hit by the influx, with “dozens of Lebanese doctors offering their services” to Iraqi hospitals.
The United Arab Emirates continues to be a preferred destination for Lebanese with the financial means to relocate. Marianna Wehbe, 42, who runs a luxury PR firm, moved to Dubai in August 2021 to be with her daughter, Sophie, 17, who left Lebanon after the Beirut explosion.
“Even during the revolution (2019), the explosion and the crisis, we all found ways to continue operating and working with clients overseas,” Wehbe told Arab News.
“Most of those who left did so to be with their families and to have a safe and stable environment for their children. My daughter needed a place to study safely and keep her sanity. Beirut, with the electricity and internet cuts, it was no longer that. Her formative years are ahead of her.
She said that inevitably some of this new generation of emigrants will begin to feel homesick after a while and, filled with renewed hope, may decide to return.
“Lebanon has always been like this: you leave and then you come back,” Wehbe said. “You give up and then you have hope because we all want to go home. So many families come back hoping things (will get better).”
However, the American University of Beirut’s Crisis Observatory said in August 2021 that the current loss of talent will be difficult for Lebanon to overcome as it is the country’s young people who are leaving.
According to the results of an opinion survey on young Arabs published in 2020, around 77% of respondents in Lebanon said they were considering emigrating – the highest percentage of any Arab country that year. .
It is easy to understand why so many young Lebanese would seek an exit strategy. According to the World Bank, an estimated one in five people have lost their jobs since October 2019, and 61% of companies have reduced their permanent staff by an average of 43%.
“The exodus of the middle class to Lebanon is wiping out the country,” Alami told Arab News from his self-imposed exile in the United States.
“A nation is built on the middle class, and with all the middle class engineers, bankers, lawyers and professionals leaving Lebanon, I think we will see the whole foundation crumble. It will be very difficult to rebuild with the current situation.
The World Health Organization estimated in September 2021 that more than nearly 40% of Lebanese doctors and nurses have left the country since October 2019.
“More than 35% of medical professionals left for the Gulf, Europe or the Americas to further their careers,” Alami said.
“I don’t see myself going back there in the next 10 years, from a professional point of view, because there is no magic wand that will change things in Lebanon in the next decade. I just need to secure my children’s future now.