Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 28 November 2020

Arab Youth Survey 2020: Lebanese tell of need for 'wasta' just to go to a proper hospital

On the streets of Beirut, beggars plead for 70 cents (Dh2.5) for a coffee - and the young think of a better life abroad

Walk into Fahed Supermarket, a busy shopping mall on the outskirts of Beirut, and most days you will find Hussein Awwad, 24, working the small DVD booth by the entrance.

Like many young Lebanese, Mr Awwad wishes he lived anywhere but in his home country.

“I lost hope,” said the first-year translation student.

“This country is ruled by warlords who stole this country by guns. You can’t take it in a peaceful way, and I’m not going to hold a gun. I don’t want to do that.”

This year's Arab Youth Survey, commissioned by Dubai communications agency Asda'a Burson Cohn & Wolfe, found that 77 per cent of Lebanese aged 18 to 24 want to emigrate. That is higher than in war-torn Libya (69 per cent), Yemen (66per cent), and Iraq (65 per cent).

The only friends who want to stay in Lebanon are political supporters who benefit from the corruption

Hussein Awwad

Mr Awwad has wanted to leave Lebanon, a country with a long history of emigration, since he was a boy. The multiple shocks suffered by the Lebanese in the past year strengthened his resolve to study German and move to Germany as soon as possible.

But he needs to graduate first, and this could take at least two more years as he works full-time to pay for his studies. His monthly salary of 900,000 Lebanese pounds, that used to be worth $600, is now the equivalent of $108 on the black market.

In the summer of 2019, the effects of decades of mismanagement by the country’s political elite caused a full-fledged financial meltdown, complete with hyperinflation, soaring poverty rates and a rapid depreciation of the local currency.

The final blow for Mr Awwad came with the explosion on August 4 of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate in Beirut port after seven years of unsafe storage. Nearly 200 people died, and 30,000 others became homeless.

“Everyone was affected by this blast. Even if you’re rich or poor, we can’t take it any more,” he told The National.

“You can’t accomplish anything in this country because of corruption … And now you can’t feel safe.”

The Arab Youth Survey showed that, second to the bad economy, corruption is driving young Arabs to want to leave their home countries. Lebanon ranked 137 out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s latest survey.

Corruption affects nearly every aspect of daily life, including health care.

“If I want to go to proper hospital, I need a wasta,” said Mr Awwad, referring to the local word for bribe.

“You have to go to some political leader, or maybe someone who knows a political leader, to get what you need.”

Last October, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese rose up against their leaders, demanding accountability and political change. But the anti-government movement has yet to yield concrete results, causing further bitterness among the youth.

“The only friends who want to stay [in Lebanon] are political supporters who benefit from the corruption,” said Mr Awwad. “They have their wasta and they are doing fine here. Other friends are just like me. They have no one. They only have their wish to go.”

According to the Arab Youth Survey, 82 per cent of young Lebanese support the protests that call for the end of sectarianism in their country. But today, as poverty and unemployment increase, tensions between Lebanon's many religious groups are rising.

Like roughly one third of the population, Mr Awwad is a Shiite Muslim. The main Shiite representative in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, accused protesters of being infiltrated by “foreign embassies” and asked his followers to stop protesting.

But Mr Awwad is not a supporter of the party, which also operates a powerful militia. “I participated in the revolution every day until the last day,” he said.

Rawad Taha, 21, believes that change is yet to come. The young journalist will be moving to Dubai in the coming days for a new job but hopes to be back soon to continue his political activism.

“I want to try to still be involved as much as possible. I’m not bailing out on the country,” he told The National while sitting in a cafe in Beirut. “If I got paid half of what I’ll get in Dubai, I’d stay here.”

Mr Taha stopped working at a local TV station five months ago when his monthly salary, that was worth $1,000, dropped to $200. Since then, he has dedicated most of his time to social and political work with civil society groups that emerged with last year's protests.

“A lot of people thought that October 17 was a moment of change, and the disappointment that came after the revolution led them to leave,” he said. “But this establishment won’t collapse in two weeks. You’re not toppling one dictator, you’re toppling six. So it’s harder. They’re against each other and they protect each other at the same time.”

Mr Taha was referring to Lebanon’s six main political leaders, who also represent religious groups: Christian President Michel Aoun and his rival Samir Geagea, Shiite Muslim leader Hassan Nasrallah and his ally Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, Sunni Muslim leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Druze representative Walid Joumblatt.

Four out of six are former warlords that rose to power during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.

Mr Taha was able to take time off work because his parents send him a monthly allowance from overseas in cash dollars, which can be easily be changed on the black market for a rate that is more than 80 per cent higher than the official one. “Having access to fresh dollars means that I’m not in crisis,” he said. In August, inflation hit 120 per cent.

As he spoke, an elderly man wearing tattered clothes walked through the cafe, interrupting Mr Taha.

“One thousand Lira, please,” he pleaded. Mr Taha hesitated, reaching for his wallet, but a waiter gently pushed the man out.

“This is the first time I see a beggar here,” he said, visibly shaken. “You try to help as much as possible, but you also have to keep going.

"The whole situation makes you feel guilty about being privileged.”

Updated: October 6, 2020 11:39 AM

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