Stranded Lebanese students struggling under Italy's lockdown

Shut off from cash-strapped Beirut, the diaspora is trying to organise

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Ahmad, a Lebanese Masters student in north Italy, took on a part-time pizza delivery job last December when a banking crisis back home saw payments from Beirut banned.

As Lebanon struggles with its worst financial crisis in history, banks closed and international payments were halted to stop money flowing out of the country.

But then, Ahmad lost his job earlier this month as Italy went into lockdown to try and halt the rapidly spreading coronavirus that has so far killed 6,820 in the country.

With only pharmacies and supermarkets open, Ahmad was no longer needed at work.

He says he knew the next few weeks were going to be tough but like the rest of the country, he anxiously watched the death toll’s dramatic increase.

“The situation is not comfortable. There’s a lot of death every day,” said Ahmad, 27, who had always managed to get by with a few hundred Euros a month sent by his family during his years of study in Italy. He asked for his name to be changed because he does not want to worry his family further.

While many countries put on special flights to airlift stranded nationals out of one of the worst-hit countries in the world, Beirut sent no such aircraft.

Cut off from cash-strapped Lebanon, the diaspora is trying to organise and help each other out.

Stay home to stop the spread

Stay home to stop the spread

Mohamad Kamal, a Lebanese PhD student based in Turin, has called about 150 other Lebanese students across northern Italy to assess their needs.

He pointed to local media reports of students living on a few euros a week.

Mr Kamal is part of a crisis cell set up in the past weeks that relays such information to the Lebanese consulate in Milan and its embassy in Rome. They are all trying to raise funds from Lebanese donors both in Italy and in Lebanon.

Donations started coming in the past days and 100 students received 100 euros each.

A generous Lebanese donor living in Italy, who asked to remain anonymous, provided the bulk of the sum, said Lebanon’s consul general in Milan, Khalil Mohamad. “We connect the student to the donor who sends it directly to their account," he said.

Ahmad, who managed to borrow 200 euros from a friend after losing his job, was one of the recipients. “We are OK now, but I have no idea about the future. It might become more complicated,” he told The National.

Most students are living on rice and pasta but say they cannot pay rent, said Mr Kamal. But given the severity of the situation, Italy has banned evictions, he added.

Mr Mohamad said that there are 400 Lebanese students in northern Italy in total. “We have direct and clear instructions from the Foreign Affairs Ministry to help the students, so it’s our top priority,” he said, although no funds have been sent by the government.

He was unable to communicate figures for the rest of the country. Lebanon’s ambassador to Italy, Mira Daher, did not respond to a request for comment.

In the past days, the rules blocking money transfers from Lebanon to the students have also been eased for some.

Salim Sfeir, the president of Lebanon’s Association of Banks and the head of Bank of Beirut, agreed to allow Lebanese students receive money sent through his institution’s transfer system as many first years have accounts already from when they needed to place their deposit for a visa for Italy.

However, many second and third year students do not have accounts at Bank of Beirut but talks are ongoing with other financial institutions to implement similar measures.

"The president of the Association of Banks is closely following the issue of securing funds for Lebanese students stuck in Italy," the association told The National. "He has contacted banks operating in Lebanon and the Lebanese ambassador to Italy, Mira Daher. It was agreed to facilitate transfers to Italy to enable the Lebanese to meet their basic needs during these urgent and critical circumstances."

On Monday, Lebanon’s state-run National News Agency (NNA) published a letter addressed to Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad written by Mr Kamal on behalf of the students. They asked the Lebanese government to charter a plane for them to return to Lebanon and to send financial aid.

“We hope your excellency will take our call into consideration because the situation could become catastrophic,” it concluded. “Many students are hungry, bankrupt and isolated.”

On Tuesday, Mrs Abdel Samad acknowledged that she had received the students’ letter. Cabinet discussed the issue the following day but while ministers talked about material assistance to the students in Italy, as well as in France, there was no mention of flying the students back.

About sixty students tried to take one of the final flights home before the airport shut on March 18, but the national carrier, Middle East Airlines (MEA), postponed the departure three times until it was too late both Mr Kamal and Ahmad said.

“It was their right to come back. The delay was the fault of MEA,” said Ahmad. The company declined to comment on the incident.

Ahmad, who is from south Lebanon, did not attempt to return before Beirut airport shut, thinking the situation in Italy would improve.

Asked whether he would do so now, he said yes. “I would self-isolate for two weeks but at least I would be with my family and have a garden,” he said.

Ahmad says he chose to study in Italy and not in Lebanon because fees at public universities are cheaper and the level is good. Several of Lebanon’s private universities rank among the top in the region but fees are steep, and it can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.

In the most optimistic scenario, Mr Mohamed believes the students face “two or three difficult months”.