This time last year, Sandra Bou Khalil and her husband were full of hope. They had just invested all their savings in opening a new hair salon outside Beirut. The couple had returned to Lebanon with their two young children after living for over a decade in Dubai, where she worked in the oil and gas sector and he was a successful hair stylist.
One year later, they have lost everything. The salon had to close shortly after it opened because of the massive anti-government protests that shook the country last October. Lebanon’s economic collapse kept worsening. In February, the coronavirus pandemic hit, dealing a further blow to the small Mediterranean country.
After selling her phone, camera, fridge and washing machine, Mrs Bou Khalil, 40, turned in May to a local NGO for help. She has been relying on it ever since to pay for food, rent, and the tuition for her children, Thea, 6, and Elias, 8.
For Mrs Bou Khalil, one of the worst aspects of poverty was lying to her children. “I told them: the cows are not coming to Lebanon, so we cannot eat meat. This is what I told them, I swear. I felt that deep down, I’m joking. They laughed,” she recalls, sitting in her home in the hills overlooking Beirut, in the small town of Broumana.
Today, she has adapted to her new reality. No more meat every day, and no more of her children’s favourites like cheddar cheese. “I thought, Sandra, you need to get Dubai out of your head. Stop comparing your life. You have to adapt. Otherwise, I will lose my mind, and I will lose my family. Because if I’m not happy, the whole family won’t be happy,” she said.
“It’s so bizarre. When I was living in Dubai, I had everything. I had my own house, my own car,” she said. “I went to rock bottom. It’s really bad, I don’t want to live it again.”
Her experience mirrors that of tens of thousands of other middle-class families across Lebanon, said Maya Ibrahimchah, founder of Beit El Baraka, the NGO that helps Mrs Bou Khalil’s family. It also helps 220,000 others with services that include a free supermarket and financial aid to cover rent, medical services and education.
A former communications manager in an international consumer goods company, Mrs Ibrahimchah founded Beit El Baraka in February 2019 after a life-changing meeting with an elderly former French language teacher who was living in the street.
"These people were not the kind of people that you could feed with a food box and say 'take the box', or just serve them what you're cooking. It doesn't work this way," she told The National. "It's a different type of poverty. It's the poverty of the intellectual elite, which is terrible."
Mrs Ibrahimchah worries that this new, less obvious impoverishment of the middle class will have a long-term effect on a country which was once known for exporting well-educated graduates.
"We invented the alphabet, for God’s sake! And ever since, in the area here, we’ve always been a reference in knowledge. And look what they [politicians] have turned us into: a population that has one in four children who will not go to school this year. This is what they have made us," she said.
“Look at the woman sitting outside, do you think she is poor?” said Mrs Ibrahimchah, gesturing towards a platinum-blond woman wearing a dark blue dress, sitting outside Beit El Barakah’s office. “The bills that she is holding is the school tuition of her children. She comes here to get food. We pay for the gas for her husband to be able to work on a half-salary. Basically, he can pay the electricity bill and that’s it,” said Mrs Ibrahimchah.
According to United Nations estimates from August, Lebanon’s economic crisis has pushed more than half of the population into poverty, almost double last year’s rate.
Struggling with hyperinflation and the rapid fall of its local currency, the cash-strapped state has been unable to address its citizens’ needs.
Mrs Bou Khalil sees her situation as temporary. “Accepting help is for a moment, because we like to work. We like to sweat and make our own money and enjoy it,” she said, recognising however that without help, she “would have been on the street”.
The family is waiting for their luck to turn, whether in Lebanon or abroad. “I’ll give it until January. If things are not going to be OK, I think maybe we’ll move back to Dubai,” said Mrs Bou Khalil. “Any door that will open to me, I will take it. Because wasting your time on your country when the country does not care… Maybe I’ll come back when I’m retired.”
“It’s so sad to say that,” she continued. “When I told my kids we might travel again, my son cried for two days. He said, ‘No, I love Lebanon, I love my grandma and grandpa, I love my cousins. And look around you, this is why I love Lebanon’,” she said, gesturing around her.
What was he referring to? “The trees,” she answered.