Many families haven't eaten meat or chicken for over a month. It's the faith in God and the desire to support their children that keeps them going.
Michel Rizk and his wife, Sabah Mikhael Tayyar, had always lived a modest life.
Michel served in the Lebanese Army for over 28 years, and brought home a salary of 2.7 million Lebanese pounds monthly, or what used to be the equivalent of $1,800.
They couldn’t afford to partake in Lebanon’s famed nightlife or go designer shopping, but gave their kids — now aged 21, 20, and 14 — good education and believed in the value of an honest living.
Like many Christians in the densely-populated Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud, Christmas was a time for community, celebration, and small gifts.
This year, that’s all changed.
“Where can we get joy from? My wife is sick, there is no medication. Even if people come over to say merry Christmas, I don’t have the money to give them (even) a small box of chocolates,” says Michael, who is now 49 years old.
Blocks away, May Naser, 48, and her daughter Katherine, 14, tell a similar story.
“Before [the crisis], we’d get gifts, put on the tree. When you enter the house, you’d feel it’s Christmas,” says Katherine.
“But now I can’t even afford to get my daughter a birthday cake, let alone fill a Christmas table,” her mother adds.
A Christmas like no other
The two families are among the millions of victims of Lebanon’s multi-headed crisis, now in its third excruciating year.
In late 2019, shortly after then Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in light of popular anti-government protests, the local currency, which had held steady to the dollar at a rate of 1,500 for thirty years, began to tailspin—first to 3,000, then to 10,000, and then to, at the time of publication, to a whopping 27,000 Lebanese lira to the dollar. Depositors have never been able to take their money out of the bank in dollars, eliminating the option for most Lebanese to rely on savings to weather the storm, move abroad, or retire.
The Lebanese lira’s free-fall coupled with Covid-induced revenue loss, forced many businesses to down their shutters, and, by extension, cut down on employees. The UN estimates that in the first year of the crisis alone, more than 30 percent of Lebanese lost their jobs, a major factor in the current poverty rate, now standing at 82 percent.
But the picture is not particularly bright for those who were lucky enough to retain employment: minimum wage in the country stands at 675,000 pounds a month, now worth 24 dollars. The average salary is around 50 dollars.
Michel, who retired as a First Adjutant in 2019, receives just under the equivalent of 70 dollars in pension every month, his condition exacerbated not only by the devaluation of the lira, but also a 30 percent pension cut.
It’s nowhere near enough to meet the needs of his family, particularly as Sabah is suffering from breast cancer.
When she was diagnosed in 2020, neither the family nor the military hospital could afford the treatment, so she went without necessary medication. During a recent screening, doctors discovered the cancer has spread into her chest and throat.
“Logically speaking, delaying the treatment allowed the cancer to spread,” Sabah says, her face illuminated by candlelight.
Despite the advancement of her cancer, financial circumstances have only worsened, and she has stopped buying even her inhaler, which now costs more than half of her husband’s pension.
Michel, who also suffers from heart problems, says it would cost 12 million Lebanese lira to buy the medication they both require. That’s more than six months of income.
“We are all numbers. It seems the military is waiting for all cancer patients to die because they don’t have money to pay for us,” says Sabah.
Like many vital imports in Lebanon, medicine, when available, has become widely unaffordable to large segments of the population. Even the majority of the medication that was once subsidised is now inaccessible, after the Health Ministry began lifting subsidies in November, a move which doctors have warned will have dire consequences for patients like Sabah. Earlier this month, Issam Shaarani, the Chief of Staff and Senior Advisor to the Minister of Public Health Firass Abiad told TRT World that the government is now spending $35 million per month on medical subsidies, down over 200 percent from $120 million.
But it’s unknown just how long current subsidies will last, with Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh saying Tuesday that the country’s foreign currency reserves — already slashed in half since the start of the crisis — are being rapidly depleted. By best estimates, he says the Central Bank will only be able to continue partial subsidies for another “six to nine months.”
For reference, the subsidy on fuel was effectively lifted in August after a summer that saw mile-long petrol lines, due mostly to severe rationing, hoarding and smuggling to neighbouring Syria. As a result, transportation, generator diesel, and supply chain costs soared, with the cost of a full tank of gas, depending on the car, being nearly equivalent to Lebanon’s minimum wage.
“We can’t even go to the mall to look at Christmas lights because we can’t afford to waste fuel. We count everything,” says Mary, whose husband, the sole breadwinner in the family, lost his job at Beirut’s famous Le Gray Hotel after it closed following the devastating Beirut Port blast, which left over 200 people dead and damaged large swathes of the city. They now rely on his income as a for-hire driver, and donations from altruistic neighbours, to make ends meet.
“The people’s needs have changed during the holidays because they are now just thinking of their basic necessities like food, gas, fuel,” says Daniella Atleiss, founder of local NGO Bird of Lyf, which seeks to improve the quality of life in the country through a myriad projects related poverty-reduction, women’s empowerment, environmental, and food security.
She says the change in needs along with soaring poverty rates are some of the primary reasons people are “facing the hardest time yet.”
One country, two realities
Despite the near hopeless reality facing millions of Lebanese families like the Rizk’s and Nasser’s, Lebanon is still expecting a semi-fruitful holiday season, due mostly to foreign currency brought in by the country’s estimated 15 million expatriates.
An official at Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport tells TRT World that roughly 11,300 passengers arrived in Lebanon daily between December 16-19. Already a 61 percent increase from November, the numbers are expected to rise. The official called the arrival figures “a positive parameter for the Lebanese economy.”
In Faraya, a popular winter skiing and party destination in Lebanon, hotels are experiencing their high season. Several hotels like the Intercontinental Mzaar are asking for a minimum four-night bookings for stays through New Years Eve, with others upping nightly prices by over 70 percent for the same time period. The lavish Odom Retreat, which prices its deluxe domes at $275 per night during the holiday season, is fully booked until January 10.
Vanessa, a 32-year-old tech consultant who flew home for the holidays from Paris, says the current crisis won’t change the Christmas spirit for her.
“The mood in Lebanon is really depressing right now, so I feel like the best thing we can do is just try to enjoy the spirit and support Lebanese businesses when we buy Christmas gifts,” she says while perusing the stands at Batroun Capitale de Noel, a Christmas market in Batroun’s Old Town. It’s one of at least six Christmas markets, a rarity in a country in such dire crisis. In Syria, for example, many Christians say it's the first time in years they’ve haven’t seen seasonal lights or decor, which they attribute to an acute electricity shortage, and the devaluation of the Syrian pound.
Still, the spread of the new Omicron variant may put a damper on the expat Christmas, with the Syndicate of Owners of Restaurants, Cafes and Nightclubs telling TRT World that restaurants are only slated to be at 50 percent full, their allowed capacity this holiday season.
Back in Beirut, restaurant capacities are the last thing on Sabah’s mind. In fact, she says her refrigerator has not seen meat or chicken for over a month.
For her, there’s only one element of Christmas that has remained constant — her unfailing faith.
“I have my strength not from medication, but from my own will to give my daughters a better life, and from God,” she says.
“God is the only thing that will get us through.”