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Michael Karam on Lebanon: Syrian war refugees arriving in droves, Lebanese merchants leaving in trickles

The Syrian refugee crisis is a drain on Lebanon's public finances, leading to what might be a new cycle of emigration by Lebanese merchants, who like the author's grandfather will find a way to build a better life.

Michel Sleiman can’t get to New York fast enough.

The Lebanese president will address the United Nations on the challenges of living next door to the Syrian civil war, but the word on the street is that he has also packed the begging bowl for meetings with the Americans, the Iranians and the Qataris, among others.

And not before time. Figures released last week by Byblos Bank tell us that caring for the refugees of the Syrian civil war will have cost Lebanon’s public purse US$7.5 billion by 2014. Projections for that year put the bill at an additional $3.9bn. This year’s tab is expected to run to $2.5bn, with electricity presenting the highest charge at $214 million. Health comes second with $177m and education a creditable third, clocking up $83m.

To put a human face on these numbers, Lebanon will by next year have 170,000 Syrian students in its schools, while the workforce will have increased by nearly 50 per cent, flooding cheap labour into a dead economy.

Elsewhere, the impact of the crisis has been reflected in the shocking performance of the Beirut Stock Exchange (BSE), which once again encapsulates the state’s chronic lack of vision and strategic direction. The Beirut Index has fallen 14.8 per cent in the first seven months of the year. Libya, the region’s next worst performer and a country that Nato was bombing two years ago, registered a drop of 8.4 per cent. The total trading value of the BSE in the first half of this year was a paltry $133m. This is what Dubai shifts in a day and London does in less than 15 minutes. The BSE is, by common consent, the smallest and least liquid stock exchange in the region (and that includes the Palestinian Stock Exchange). And we still call ourselves a financial hub.

“We have to build a state in Lebanon with a stable government,” the Hizbollah official Hussein Khalil said last week, one of the many bland statements emitting from the collective donkey that is our political class. It always makes me laugh when Hizbollah talks about state-building, especially given that the party’s nation-building achievements to date can be gauged by the amount of rubble it has generated.

It’s not surprising, therefore, when you hear people saying: “That’s it. I’m out of here.” It’s only a trickle at the moment but companies, mainly Christian holdings, in some cases ones that have been part of the very fabric of the Lebanese private sector for decades, are selling up. In 1975, Lebanon’s Christians acted to stop the growing power of the PLO. Today, they know the sectarian dynamic has changed and that this is not their fight. They are pretty sure they won’t be targeted if sectarian tensions escalate, but they don’t want to sit on the sidelines and watch their fellow Lebanese slaughter each other either.

Anxiety can be tempered with the fact that since the mid-19th century the Lebanese have always left to find a better life or escape persecution. My grandfather, Esper Karam, packed his trunk and created trading companies in Sao Paulo in Brazil and then Koulikoro in Mali. My mother’s ancestors left the Bekaa town of Zahle in the 1860s and went to Cairo, where by all accounts they also prospered. It is the Lebanese way.

Remittances make up 20 per cent of Lebanese GDP, so I guess one should not read too much into this new wave of emigration. The Shia did the same thing half a century ago, so maybe the sectarian patterns of migration simply reflect the political churn of a particular period.

And by and large we always do well. A few years back I met the owners of a travel agency, who before leaving for America during the civil war were major beetroot farmers from the Bekaa Valley. They told me about what it was like to arrive Stateside. “We literally found ourselves on the dock with our suitcases,” the father said. “But we looked around and asked ourselves what was needed here. There wasn’t a hardware store so we opened one and then another and so began our American adventure. But we came back. It wasn’t our country.”

Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut

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