Suspended in mid-air: The plight of the Lebanese student

Suspended in mid-air: The plight of the Lebanese student
8 min read
19 May, 2021
With Lebanon's economy in free fall, Lebanese students have faced sustained pressures to continue their studies. The New Arab finds out how, after the decimation of the Lebanese currency, some students have turned to desperate measures.
With Lebanon's economy in freefall, its students face a precarious future [Getty]

Born and raised in Beirut’s Choueifat province, Samer Al-Gharib now resides in London pursuing his Master’s degree in Biomaterial and Tissue Engineering at UCL after completing a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering the previous year. At the start of the academic year, Samer drafted his GoFundMe page when it was clear that his family were no longer able to pay his tuition costs.

Following the drastic devaluation of the Lebanese pound (LBP) after the mass protests that erupted in October 2019, Lebanon’s Central Bank banned international transfers in a bid to mitigate the country’s deteriorating foreign currency reserves. As such, the Lebanese currency has plunged to 85 percent of its initial value against the dollar.

Banks have frozen access to depositors’ private accounts, allowing for a limited local currency withdrawal at the rate of 3,900 LBP, only 15 percent of the black-market rate. The resulting hyperinflation has caused more than half of the country to default into poverty and reduced the average monthly minimum wage down from $445 to just $67.50 (LBP 675.000).

Students abroad are cut off indefinitely from financial support with an exchange rate that no longer provides the parity to withstand a life in the country, let alone a life abroad

Lebanese students have had to accept the aftermath of these measures and their profound impact on their education. Two of Beirut’s most prominent universities have already adopted the bank’s exchange rate of 3,900 LBP, tripling tuition fees for a student population with stagnant incomes. Students’ financial insecurity worsened as COVID-19 restrictions accelerated mass job losses and shut down local businesses, pushing them out of educational institutions or into debt.

With an unemployment rate of 36 percent, graduates carrying second passports are leaving for economic opportunity elsewhere whilst Lebanese citizens join the Lebanon-to-UAE pipeline, a community already consisting of 350,000 citizens living across the Gulf.

Meanwhile, parents who have prepared their children, where possible, for a life abroad through dual nationality and a bilingual education have seen their efforts falter. Students abroad are cut off indefinitely from financial support with an exchange rate that no longer provides the parity to withstand a life in the country, let alone a life abroad. For this reason, Samer launched his fundraiser, with the target set at £19,020. His story stood out to the many social media users who shared his GoFundMe link to help achieve his end goal.

Despite GoFundMe’s wide reach, it is rare to come across fundraisers set up by individuals based in the Arab-speaking world. A platform designed to ask for help publicly is incompatible with the culture of honour prevalent within MENA households of all socioeconomic strata. Generosity and charity are virtues intrinsic to Islam, therefore, individuals needing financial help often seek support from their communities after having exhausted all possible alternatives in a bid to preserve dignity and save face. 

Analysis
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Since April 2020, Samer’s mother has only managed to transfer him a total of £2,000. For his first tuition instalment, Samer paid his dues having received a donation of £10,000 that also helped cover his student visa fees, leaving him without the means necessary to get by in London. To make ends meet, Samer took up work as a tutor and waiting tables at a Lebanese restaurant in Hammersmith during evenings and weekends, cycling the hour commute to and from his East London apartment to minimise transport costs.

Samer’s second and third tuition instalment caught up with his financial situation. UCL had begun to threaten his access to the online resources and tools necessary for his studies if he did not pay off the remaining balance. He was still waiting on an application submitted for a transfer approval, which Lebanon’s Central Bank had permitted for students living abroad under the conditions that the funds come from a dollar account with a maximum transfer amount of $10,000.

With his final exams scheduled in April, Samer decided to publish his fundraiser that he first created back in September and shared the link across multiple social media platforms.

“I tried to be as genuine as possible,” Samer says, recounting the moment he openly shared his financial burdens, “I didn’t want others to think that I was begging for money.”

Samer’s rejection of the shame attached to seeking help illustrates the unravelling of a social fabric which had previously sewn silent endurance into the collective Lebanese identity and memory. Instead, grief and healing among the youth is now manifesting through open dialogue about mental health on social media platforms.

Samer’s rejection of the shame attached to seeking help illustrates the unravelling of a social fabric which had previously sewn silent endurance into the collective Lebanese identity and memory

report conducted in 2020 by the medical journal The Lancet found that mental healthcare in Lebanon was still in its infancy, with high stigma, limited government funding, and a few public clinics obstructing effective treatment. Today, social media users are filling the lacuna by providing toolkits and resources to help others articulate and share their mental and emotional wellbeing whilst also recommending mental health professionals according to location and affordability.

The damage caused by the political stalemate, the economic collapse, COVID-19, and Beirut’s port explosion have been covered extensively, whereas investigations into the long-term impact of these struggles on Lebanon’s future remain underwhelming.

Voices

Reem Traboulsi, a Political Studies student at the American University of Beirut (AUB), shares her experience of a life in limbo. Before the blast, Reem considered a double major at university, which would have required an additional year to complete her Bachelor’s. After the port’s explosion, however, she began to think about her financial independence; a career in financial consultancy crossed her mind many times because of its stable income and the guarantee that she could leave the country as soon as possible.

“I’m constantly stuck between a life abroad, where I don’t have to think about my basic survival and a life at home, where I feel fulfilled by my purpose but uncertain about my safety.”

"The political entity of Lebanon has failed us, deceived us, harmed us, and stripped us of our dignity"

This is a recurring phenomenon among Lebanese students wherein a troubling sense of guilt is felt when deciding to leave, or ‘abandon’, the country – as though Lebanon’s national project had failed on their terms. Graduates everywhere already have to reckon with the job market amidst school closures and furlough schemes, but the question of where opportunity and security can be found is reserved for the few who must confront a life abroad out of an urgent necessity. Lebanese students of all persuasions have fallen mercilessly into the latter.

These experiences amalgamate into the repeated history wherein what is most loved must be left behind, sowing seeds of dejection which will later grow into the very resentment that drains the youth of any hope for their homeland. When the perpetrator of crime and hunger is your elected government, who do you fight, and, more importantly, what are you fighting for?

Read more: How Lebanon's supermarkets became a frontline in the fight to survive the economic crisis

“It’s not a war with Israel this time. It’s a crippling situation caused partly by corruption and partly by international pressure. The political entity of Lebanon has failed us, deceived us, harmed us, and stripped us of our dignity.”

Dania Dandashli, a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in Beirut, notes how unlike in the past, the battle lines have been blurred. She recalls her experiences of the Civil War and the collective healing that was found through community action. Dania exemplifies this by pointing to the events that followed Beirut’s fatal August explosion, when Lebanon’s youth mobilised immediately to clean up the shattered glass and debris created by the blast.

“They cleaned [the city] like they were trying to put things back together. Afterwards, everybody was talking about it and sharing their stories. That is a way of healing – letting it out.”

Mental and emotional wellbeing is powerful in its ability to sink lives or keep them afloat. The discourse taking shape on social media allows individuals to focus on their own needs without surrendering to the expectations of a greater narrative or cause.

Vocalising anxieties and speaking their truth has cultivated the community which binds Lebanese students with one another, each of whom understand the strenuous endeavour of working towards an unpromised and uncertain future.

Luma Makari, founder of Elgorithm, one of Lebanon’s first digital mental health programmes providing free psychosocial support to educational centres across the country, describes the growing community as one that is both overwhelming and inescapable.

They now leave Lebanon in its darkest hour with its bleakest prospects, forced to seek the greener grass of pastures new

“I lived right by the Central Bank, so I woke up to the protests, to the burning tires and the burning trash; I became connected to it all, a lot of my anxiety was linked to that environment.”

Luma decided it was best to continue her studies and her work responsibilities from abroad. The distance allows her to care for herself first, rejecting the stigma from elders who often use their experiences of the Civil War to invalidate today’s youth. Others, she says, were following suit.

“Rather than acclimating to the crisis, we were [finding] a way out or tried to find a way to work within, without simply adjusting.”

The in-betweenness that has long characterised the Lebanese experience has stifled progress where needed, making migrants out of students just beginning to come into their own.

Feeling humiliated and betrayed by those tasked to protect them, students must traverse the well-trodden path that the generations before them have taken. They now leave Lebanon in its darkest hour with its bleakest prospects, forced to seek the greener grass of pastures new. And perhaps this time, the grass is truly greener elsewhere.

Tracy Jeff Jawad is a political researcher and writer who has worked for the United Nations in New York City and the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.