A few days before going to Lebanon last month, I was advised to prepare myself mentally because the reality on the ground would be worse than what I was told or read. As an aid worker and CEO of a humanitarian organization that has spent the past two decades in some of the most volatile and devastated places in the world, I thought I had already seen the worst in Lebanon. I was wrong. The country has become a shadow of itself. Still, I felt ready to see my home country again. The last time I was there was in August 2020, following the explosion at the port of Beirut. The city was still in shock, with debris and windows littering the streets, as the death toll continued to rise.
Flying over Lebanon seemed unreal this time. From my window seat, I gazed at the mountains, the cedar forests, the coastal plain and finally Beirut. Admiring the beauty of my homeland from the sky has never ceased to capture my imagination of how Lebanon could be a great country. As I got off the plane and entered Beirut Airport, reality quickly caught up with me. Very few people entered Lebanon. The usual crowd of travelers at the airport was no longer there. Most of the visitors were expatriate Lebanese returning “home” to watch their families for a few days. None of us traveled light, even short-sighted ones like me. We all had at least two suitcases, and like me, at least one was full of medicine. Traditionally, we carry suitcases full of gifts for family members and friends. This time all they wanted was as much medicine as we could carry.
I landed in Beirut on a Friday afternoon around 4:30 p.m. If you know anything about Lebanon, you know the traffic is painfully heavy around this time, especially on a Friday. People usually leave Beirut for the mountains or different coastal towns for the weekend. When I started driving my rental car, I noticed that there was hardly any traffic. There was hardly anyone behind the wheel. However, what I could see were lines of cars stretching for miles, parked along the road waiting for a gas station to open. The fuel crisis brought the country to a halt. It was no longer a headline in the news; it was a reality that I witnessed with my own eyes.
I arrived at my mother’s house where I would stay the time of my stay in Lebanon. It was a short trip and I wanted to make sure I could see as many of my family as possible. So my mother’s house was the best place for my siblings and their children. They were already waiting for me when I arrived. The traditional joyful welcome was this time very brief, overtaken by anguish, sadness and even outbursts of anger facing the country turning into a living nightmare. Many have expressed their desire to leave the country. Anyone with a diploma or with the possibility of leaving tries to do so. Hope has gone to Lebanon, many have told me. Even though a new government was appointed the day I arrived, they all laughed at the possibility that it was different this time around. All explained that they have seen governments come and go, promises of change being made, with the same result always: a crippled economy, hyperinflation, power cuts that last most of the day, severe shortages. water, fuel, medicine. and a non-existent purchasing power. Worse still, the Lebanese barely have the means to eat.
For a short while, my suitcase full of medicine helped calm the spirits all around. Yet my mother, who is aging and ill, needed prescribed medication. I volunteered to go to the pharmacy to pick up his prescriptions, just because I had gasoline in my rental car. I visited seven pharmacies before I could find one that had enough medicine for a week. One by one, the pharmacists apologized for not having medication before recommending other pharmacies. Many facilities were also closed, and others were used through a window to protect themselves from possible explosions.
People’s anger was heating up as they became desperate that a loved one would not receive their medication and could possibly die. It was overwhelming to watch these scenes of despair across the city. Lebanon, land of all excess, has become the land of shortages. I couldn’t help but wonder what happens to those who don’t have enough gasoline in their car to go to the pharmacy? What happens to those who have the money to buy the drugs, but cannot find the drugs?
Rabih Torbay / HOPE Project
While some pray for God’s help, others have turned to NGOs providing medical and health care services. These services were once exclusively reserved for refugees and migrants living in Lebanon, but since the explosion of the Port of Beirut and the collapse of the economy and the health system, many organizations, including the one I lead, have started to offer care and medication. to Lebanese in need. This trip was also an opportunity to meet different partners and community organizations, to see how Project HOPE can continue to help. They all had similar needs: medicines, medical supplies, baby food, personal hygiene kits with basic soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste, school supplies, etc.
Equally worrying is the brain drain in Lebanon. Many professionals providing essential services such as doctors, nurses and engineers, as well as academics and entrepreneurs have left the country. This is already causing a significant deterioration in basic services such as the provision of health care. The repercussions on the health and well-being of the Lebanese will be felt in the months and even years to come.
Unfortunately, the help and support that organizations provide to people in Lebanon will never be enough as they will never tackle the root causes of the current crisis. In the short term, the country must stop the economic collapse, while the international community must provide additional humanitarian assistance, as more than 50 percent of the Lebanese population now live below the poverty line.
In the longer term, major economic and structural reforms, anchored in transparency, good governance and equity will be essential for the survival and recovery of the country.
Lebanon is at a turning point. Levels of desperation have reached new heights. If the international community and the newly appointed Lebanese government do not act quickly to save the country and its people, then the Lebanon we all know and love could be lost forever.
Rabih Torbay is the President and CEO of Project HOPE. Torbay is a humanitarian and crisis response leader who has designed and implemented relief, transition and global health programs in some of the world’s most challenging conditions. He has worked extensively to respond to humanitarian crises in Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Sudan, Syria, Lebanonm and the United States. Find him on Twitter at @Rtorbay.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.