A look inside the suitcase of a Lebanese expat

Travellers pack medicine, food and other basic goods to compensate for shortages in Lebanon

For Lebanese diaspora planning a trip back home, packing the ‘essentials’ has taken on a literal meaning.

Gone are the days when luggage would be filled with gifts like perfume, cigars and chocolate. Now, many are carrying a lifeline back to their families bearing the brunt of one of the world’s worst economic crises since the 1850s.

Medicine, food items and other basic necessities fill suitcases headed to the crisis-stricken country.

I always pictured myself getting souvenirs and gifts [for] friends and family, but never meds and basic goods.
Ziad Awad, 22, consultant in Cyprus

Malek Chaar, 22, packed power banks and portable chargers when preparing for a flight back home in April 2021 after four years away from Lebanon.

With fuel shortages causing long power outages, many struggle with only a total of five hours of electricity a day.

Meanwhile, Selma Karame, 18, brought feminine care products, like pads and painkillers, because supplies are either missing or have become very expensive as the Lebanese lira loses its value.

“Pre-crisis, we would always bring gifts like clothes or skincare, usually brand names that were expensive in Lebanon,” she said. “However, this time we brought an entire suitcase’s worth of the most basic things.”

A steep currency devaluation has made it increasingly difficult for Lebanon’s cash-strapped central bank to subsidise imports on which the country relies.

From basic pain relievers to psychotropic drugs, medicines for all illnesses and conditions have become difficult to obtain, forcing patients to look overseas for treatment.

Dr Joseph El Khoury, a practising psychiatrist who relocated to Dubai at the beginning of 2021, was well aware of the health crisis in Lebanon and thus tried to take essential medication for friends and strangers alike.

“We had many requests, we could not meet all of them because there are restrictions on the types of medications you can buy over the counter,” he told The National.

Still, Dr El Khoury was able to buy several medicines and make room for them in a suitcase filled with baby milk and diapers, additional items on Lebanon’s growing list of missing products.

Instant coffee and coffee creamers have also become a popular request.

“From the minute they knew I was coming back home, a lot of people started to ask me if I could bring some instant coffee,” Mahmoud Ghazayel, 33, a journalist in Abu Dhabi told The National.

Food and beverage prices have more than quadrupled in a year, according to Lebanon’s Central Administration of Statistics, as the Lebanese pound lost more than 90 per cent of its value since the onset of the crisis.

Having lived abroad since mid-2014 and last visited in 2019, Mr Ghazayel admitted to finding the requests odd at the beginning.

“But then when I arrived in Lebanon, I came to realise that everything is really really expensive in lira or not available,” he said.

Ziad Awad, 22, a consultant who moved to Cyprus in June, was also asked to bring back decaffeinated coffee on his trip to Lebanon for Eid Al Adha later this month.

“I always pictured myself getting souvenirs and gifts [for] friends and family, but never meds and basic goods,” he said.

There seems to be no end in sight for Lebanon’s crisis, as the political deadlock has obstructed the formation of a new government needed to implement crucial reforms and unlock international aid for months on end.

Lebanon’s government raised fuel prices by more than a third on Tuesday as subsidies were reduced, further increasing people's economic woes and sparking scuffles and gun fights at gas stations as motorists try to fill up their tanks.

As the Lebanese lira continues to free fall and Lebanon’s subsidy programme is slowly discontinued, basic goods are expected to further increase in price.

Updated: July 2nd 2021, 10:13 AM