'People are suffocating': Lebanon’s faiths unite to help feed the poor during Ramadan

Politicians continue to stoke sectarian tensions despite worsening financial crisis

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Muslims and Christians are coming together to help support Lebanon’s poor during Ramadan, while politicians continue to fan the flames of sectarianism amid the financial crisis.

The price of food in Lebanon - where more than half the population live below the bread line - is now more than four times higher than it was a year ago, and the local currency has lost over 80 per cent of its value.

Now more than ever, low-income families rely on charity to feed themselves during Ramadan.

“My situation is terrible. At home, the fridge is empty,” said Dounia Shehadeh, a 27-year old mother of three, as she picked up free rice, chicken and salad, as well as a handful of dates, traditionally eaten to break the Ramadan fast, from an NGO near Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city.

Recent months have been hard for the people of Tripoli, with thousands of people taking to the streets in protest at worsening poverty.

Desperation has set in among a population that has struggled for years with wild price fluctuations and unparalleled uncertainty during the financial crisis.

That desperation spilled over into violence on Tuesday, the first day of Ramadan, when a young man was killed as shots were fired during scuffles over the distribution of free meals.

The state does little to support those in need.

The country’s top Christian and Muslim leaders are busy bickering over positions in the future cabinet. They regularly stoke sectarian tensions during their political infighting.

Last week, a member of the President’s Christian political party said on live TV that Muslims will “eat us Christians”.

With people struggling to feed themselves, many in Lebanon have rejected these inflammatory remarks and have banded together to help those in need.

Ramadan is a month of consolation, of generosity, and of thinking of others and the poor

“We don’t think: Muslim, Christian. We are neighbours, friends. We serve people with dignity,” said Sheikh Majed Al Darwish, as he sat down to rest after heaping food into hundreds of plastic containers for low-income families to eat at sunset on Tuesday.

“Politicians have personal ambitions. They have goals. Unfortunately to achieve this, they try to stir people with religious discourse,” he added.

“Ramadan is a month of consolation, of generosity, and of thinking of others and the poor.”

Sheikh Al Darwish, 59, represented the Sunni Muslim mufti of Tripoli, Malik Shaar, at a local NGO called Think of Others.

The NGO runs a free restaurant called The Table of Love in the small harbour town of El Mina, on the outskirts of Tripoli.

Opened in 2018 by Robert Ayoub, who runs a customs clearance company in Beirut’s port but hails from El Mina, the restaurant had to close due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Bur after lockdown measures eased, Mr Ayoub decided to shift his model to take-away food, which is donated by locals.

Mr Ayoub, 52, is a Christian, and his NGO employees follow a mixture of faiths.

epa09093816 A customer looks at eggs price in a supermarket in Beirut, Lebanon, 24 March 2021. Calls circulated on media platforms asking all Lebanese not to buy eggs and chicken after their prices sky rocketed in a country witnessing a deep economic crisis. Inflation rate in Lebanon was at record high in December 2020 after food prices increased by up to 400 percent.  EPA/WAEL HAMZEH
The cost of food in Lebanon has risen dramatically in the past year. EPA

Adapting to Ramadan came naturally, he said. The only difference is that volunteers must operate quickly to distribute the meals before sunset.

“Our guests are mixed. They represent the demographics of the city. We’ve never had a problem with this,” he said.

Over the past two years Mr Ayoub has noticed the level of desperation increasing around him.

“You used to see people searching garbage bins at night so that nobody would see them. Today, they don’t have a problem with doing it in broad daylight. The situation is so bad,” he said.

Bader Raiyeh, 34, has relied on the restaurant to feed his family since it opened, despite earning Lebanon’s minimum wage of 650,000 Lebanese pounds a month as a concierge.

This used to be worth over $400 but now is barely the equivalent of $55. Half of this money goes to buying medication for diabetes and high blood pressure, said Mr Raiyeh.

"The situation is getting worse by the day. People are suffocating," he told The National. "They need to eat and drink, they have families and children. The crisis has destroyed them."