‘No looking back’: As economy crumbles, Lebanese turn to Cyprus

About 12,000 Lebanese have moved to small island over the past year to secure livelihoods and find better economic opportunities.

Elias Khalife and Rani al-Rajji hope their new project in Larnaca will be a hit among the locals, while also helping sustain their businesses back home [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

Nicosia/Larnaca, Cyprus – Pierre Sarkis takes a drag off his cigarette as he watches the rain outside the window in Cyprus’s capital, Nicosia. Life has not been particularly easy since he left crisis-hit Lebanon in mid-September, but the 35-year-old is adamant about settling down on the small island.

“I don’t look back. I know I’ve exhausted all my options in Lebanon,” he said.

Sarkis is among the 77,000 Lebanese to have left the cash-strapped country during the past year, according to research consultancy firm Information International. Some 12,000 of them have gone to Cyprus, with 70 percent being between the ages of 25 and 40, Mohammad Chamseddine, the firm’s policy and research specialist, told Al Jazeera.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 63 percent of Lebanese would like to permanently leave the country in the face of worsening living conditions. Some have opted to take dangerous trips across the sea to Cyprus and other European countries. One Lebanese in a refugee reception centre in Cyprus, who asked to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera that he and his family took the risk because he could no longer afford basic expenses for his children.

Pierre Sarkis moved to Cyprus in September this year [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

“There’s no job market in Lebanon,” Chamseddine explained. “So when students graduate from university, they either have the option of emigrating or staying and being unemployed.”

Sarkis, who used to work in corporate sales back home before losing his job, was among the last in his group of friends to leave Lebanon. He even stuck around after a devastating explosion at Beirut’s port last year that killed more than 200 people, wounded some 6,500 others and wrecked several neighbourhoods in the Lebanese capital, which also shook his own home.

But Sarkis said an electricity and fuel crisis last year was the last straw.

“When I couldn’t even do a job interview because of all the power cuts or go to a meeting because of the petrol crisis, I knew that this door has been slammed shut,” he recalled. “And when we didn’t have electricity for a full 24 hours, and I had to throw away everything that thawed in my freezer, I told myself ‘that’s it’.”

The Lebanese pound in just over two years has lost more than 90 percent of its value, and three-quarters of the population has slipped into poverty.

Over the past summer, Lebanese authorities began to slowly lift expensive subsidies on diesel fuel and petrol. But without any economic recovery plan, social safety net or effective legal oversight, fuel shortages paralysed much of public life, with even hospitals struggling to keep the lights on. Gas station owners and fuel distributors hoarded their stock to sell at a greater profit, while black-market salesmen sold their stock at extraordinarily high prices.

“I would pray that when I get the call for the job interview, my phone would have enough battery to get through the meeting,” recalled Sarkis, who had to sell his car and other belongings to move to Cyprus, where a Greek passport from one of his grandparents allowed him to move there with relative ease.

“If you live in Lebanon now, you’ll go crazy.”

Cutting losses in Cyprus

In an 80-year-old building behind the Church of Saint Lazarus, 45 year-old architect Rani al-Rajji and 27 year-old Elias Khalife are rushing to put the final touches on a new entertainment project in Larnaca, built on years of experience working in Lebanon’s once-bustling food and beverage industry.

Soul is due to open in March, with its Lebanese owners hoping to bring a taste of Beirut nightlife to Larnaca [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

“It’s not a bar, not a restaurant, not a cafe, not a club; it’s a bit of all of those,” al-Rajji said of the venue, launched by a total of five Lebanese and two Cypriot partners. “It’s called Soul.”

Both al-Rajji and Khalife have popular restaurants and bars back in Lebanon. But the financial crisis and the ongoing brain drain means that sustaining their businesses has become a herculean task.

“The place in Beirut is still working, but I don’t know until when because we’re losing our customers who are primarily younger people,” al-Rajji said. “I know in the coming three, four, or five years, I cannot keep it alive relying solely on its resources. We lost our ‘rainy days’ fund in the bank.”

In August 2019, Lebanese banks began withholding foreign currency withdrawals due to shortages of hard currency. The move led to the evaporation of the savings of millions of people, decimating what was left of the Lebanese middle class. Today, these withdrawals can be done at a slightly inflated rate in the Lebanese pound – but still at a significant loss.

Meanwhile, the electricity and fuel crises resulted in businesses facing skyrocketing costs just as many were already struggling to keep up with Lebanon’s food inflation, one of the worst in the world.

Khalife, who is a partner of three businesses destroyed by the Beirut port explosion, said Soul will act like a “piggy bank” for their ventures back home.

“You can’t plan things properly. One day you would be told that there is no fuel so you can’t have electricity or water,” Khalife said. “We brought in our own little generator. The customers were first entertained and took pictures of it, but that was it really.”

What will become Soul was previously three shops. But the new venture will maintain the old architecture featuring beautiful stone arches, and even the metal shutters of the shops used as the bar front. “We’re not here to change Cyprus, but we’re here to just add some Lebanese spices,” al-Rajji said smiling.

But he is well aware the success of Soul is crucial for his 12 employees back in Beirut who work at his award-winning bar, Brazzaville. “I need to create hope for them, so I needed to create an antenna for them, in order to inject some money into the institution to keep it alive,” he said. “I don’t want them to leave.”

Foreign remittances over the past 10 years have been a critical artery for the Lebanese economy, which lacks viable productive sectors.

In fact, Chamesddine, of Information International, said remittances are what has kept Lebanon afloat. He estimates that 250,000 families in Lebanon rely on them to survive.

Karim Abou Jamra shows off his tattoo of a map of Cyprus [Kareem Chehayeb/Al Jazeera]

“If it weren’t for those remittances the economy would be in far worse off place,” he said. “Officially about $6-7bn come in every year, but I estimate that it could be up to $13bn as many people especially lately are bringing in cash money, instead of wiring them through the banks.”

It takes less than an hour to fly from Larnaca to Beirut. While many young Lebanese in Cyprus are visiting their families for the holidays, they are doing so with mixed feelings.

Among them is 22-year-old Karim Abou Jamra, who left Lebanon four years ago to pursue a business degree in Cyprus. He always expected to come back home and work in the family business, but now has second thoughts after the economic crisis shook Lebanon.

“I was really depressed when everything happened as if I lost someone,” Abou Jamra said. “Maybe in the future, if things get better, I’ll try again, but at the moment, there is nothing.”

Abou Jamra grabs his bag and walks towards the terminal. He misses his family, but this time it is different, he said. He shows off a tattoo of the map of Cyprus on his forearm as he gets up. “I wish I could have a life in Lebanon, I really used to like that place.”

Meanwhile in Larnaca, al-Rajji is getting ready to move his family to Cyprus for Soul’s springtime launch. He says he has come across more and more Lebanese people in the Cypriot city and finds it “sad” that Lebanon’s brain drain continues to persist.

“Lebanon has always been exporting human resources because we have no other natural resources to export,” al-Rajji said. “But unfortunately over the last 30 years, it became an industry.”

As for Sarkis, he expects his older brother to join him and their mother in Cyprus come January. He is also waiting for his fiancé and is committed to starting a new chapter with her on the island.

“I’m 35 years-old and I think I’ll live until I’m 70,” he said, laughing. “I gave half my life to Lebanon, but after all this, I think it’s fair I live the other half of my life somewhere better.”

Source: Al Jazeera