Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?
Living on the edge of society


In this episode, we take listeners to Tripoli, Lebanon's second city and one of the poorest urban areas on the Mediterranean coast. We visit the slums of Hayy al Tanak in Tripoli and then head to Hermel, a poor district where crime is rife and tribal vendettas are common.

People here let us into their lives and share what it is like to be cast aside and forgotten by the very people who are supposed to be taking care of them – their government. And Farah Al Shami, a development economist and fellow at the Arab Reform Initiative, tells us how the economic meltdown has affected the most vulnerable.

"Lebanon: should I stay or should I go?" is produced by Sowt for Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform, and it is the story of a nation's collapse as told by its own people.

This episode was produced by Layla Yammine and Basant Samhout, hosted by Nazih Osseiran. Sound Design by Siham Arous. Editorial support by Rana Daoud. The show's Executive Producer is Nada Issa. Original score is composed by Firas Abou Fakher.

Read the full transcript below or via the transcript tab above.


Nazih: This podcast was produced before and during Israel’s military campaign in Gaza and South Lebanon.

Kawthar: We are running, running, running and we don’t get anywhere. You get to a point where you wish for death. That’s the only release.

Ali: It has been maybe 15 years since I last bought clothes for myself. I don’t have the luxury to go to a store and buy clothes.

Farah: The people that are in remote areas and in marginalized areas will only actually gain hope again if they see the business as usual of the political class change. And this hasn’t been changing. They are not actually sensing that there is a political will, and that there is a serious effort to make structural economic reforms. That is why actually they are resorting. I mean, this hopelessness is making them resort to migration, just simply leaving the country.

Nazih: Over the last four years, Lebanon, my country has suffered one of the biggest economic meltdowns the world has seen in more than a century. Our currency has lost 90% of its value. Our annual inflation in 2023 is more than 250%. As each day passes, people have less and less, while everything costs more and more; food, medicine, electricity, even water. So what are our options? Well, those who have the means to leave the country are leaving. And the rest of us? Do we wait and hope that things are going to get better? Or do we figure out how to get out of here for better opportunities elsewhere? What happens to those of us who can’t leave or have nowhere to go? I am Nazih Osseiran. Middle East correspondent for Context, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform. And this is "Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?" A podcast about how this country’s crisis is hitting its most vulnerable people, and how they are grappling with the choice of staying here or leaving. In today’s episode, we will step away from the capital, Beirut, and go to places seemingly abandoned by, well, pretty much everyone. Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city, some 85km north of Beirut. According to a UN Habitat report, it is quote “the most impoverished city in Lebanon and on the mediterranean” end quote, and one of the most deprived parts of this most deprived town of Tripoli is the slum of Hayy Al Tanak, or, as some call it, the Tin Village. Hay Al Tannak is home to Kawthar, a 28-year-old mother of three who has lived here most of her life.

Kawthar: Everyone is struggling. The situation is getting harder for everyone. We are ashamed to ask for help, even from each other, even for the most basic things, because we know everyone is in the same boat.

Nazih: Living in Hayy Al Tannak has taken its toll on Kawthar. She is 28. Her face is sad and frail. As we talk, I notice her ten-year-old son, Omar, chained to a wall in the room. Kawthar tells us he was diagnosed with severe autism. She says there’s no support for her disabled son, and so he’s chained to the wall to ensure he doesn’t injure himself or harm others. He sits silently.

Kawthar: Because of my child’s disability. He’s entitled to support from the state, but the government has stopped providing any help since 2019. I don’t know what to do. We have no more strength left in us. The pressures of poverty, lack of opportunity has drained us. We are tired.

Nazih: Every house in this neighbourhood has a tin roof. That’s why it’s called Hayy Al Tannak. The roofs offer no protection against the rain and cold. In the summer, the metal radiates heat, turning homes into furnaces.

Rushdi: After the latest crisis hit, everyone’s situation became really bad. We used to dream of a job in the security forces. Like being in the army or the police or civil service, because it meant you had a stable income and were serving your country. Now you barely make $55 a month.

Nazih: 53-year-old Rushdi Al Ayoubi spent his life in the police force. A car accident left him paralysed. Unable to move his legs or hands, he was given a meagre government allowance that now amounts to about $50 a month. After the collapse of the Lebanese pound, that allowance is almost worthless.

Rushdi: This is the only income I have to provide for my family. My wife now looks for work as a cook or cleaner in people’s homes, even cleaning carpets just to make ends meet and raise our three children. What can I do with $55 a month when the cost of a gas canister alone is more than this? If it was up to me, I would commit suicide. But I am a believer and suicide is forbidden in my religion. Otherwise, I would have killed myself by now.

Nazih: As we visit the other residents of this neighbourhood, I’m struck by just how empty their homes are. Not just the lack of furniture or belongings, but how little food they have. Many of the children are dressed in tattered clothes. Malak, a mother of four, tells me that as her family’s financial security declined, so did her mental health.

Malak: I became depressed, nervous, and anxious. I started having panic attacks. When your child wants to buy some chocolate and candy, for example, you don’t have money to buy it for him. You feel like a failure. You cannot fulfil one request for your child. It kills you. What kind of a mother are you?

Nazih: To survive, Malak has gone into debt. Still, she can barely feed her children once a day.

Malak: I am adept at Apple Money’s shop. It’s the only way I can buy food like cheese or yogurt and milk for my children. I have an account at his shop, and whenever God provides me with any money, I pay him back immediately. He tells me, take whatever you need and whenever you are able, pay me what you can.

Kawthar: It’s easier when you are not alone. I don’t think you can survive alone. There is a sense of solidarity and community here. If you find yourself without even a loaf of bread to feed your hungry children, then you go to your neighbours and they share what little they have. It’s better than being completely abandoned.

Nazih: As we walk in the neighbourhood, we pass a small truck draining sewage water from a cesspool in between the tiny houses. There is no sewage network here, and almost all the houses are surrounded by garbage. The social and mental impact of the economic collapse are clear here. It’s a scene that development economist Farah Al Shami of the Arab Reform Initiative is all too familiar with.

Farah: But also resorting to many coping mechanisms to illegal economic activity, informal economic activity. So they’re cutting down on meals, for example. They are falling into debt. They are basically selling their assets. They are relying again on remittances if they have this privilege to have some remittances coming from a family member or a friend. They’re doing coping mechanisms basically to survive, and they’re working more than one job. So basically, if we are to summarize this, this is economic hardship. This is a person or a community, a society passing through economic hardships and trying to make it, trying to make ends meet.

Nazih: With poverty and despair becoming widespread, many here feel forced to break the law. Others see migration as the only solution and are willing to leave by any means necessary.

Kawthar: Two years ago, I tried leaving the country. We got on a dinghy and were smuggled out by the sea. If we were to stay, we would die. So I felt this was our only option to try and live. It was a difficult journey. We were abandoned at sea for five days. The Cypriot coast guards found us and told us they would take us to safety. But instead they returned us to the Beirut port. When I can no longer provide a loaf of bread, then we will be forced to leave. We are dead either way.

Nazih: Many of the people I spoke to in Hay Al Tannak share this sentiment. Better try at sea than die here. Smugglers exploit their desperation and frustration. Would you think about venturing in the sea, for example?

Rushdi: Now, if I am alone considering that my situation is what it is, then yes, of course. I wouldn’t risk taking my wife and my children. But if I got the chance to leave alone, I would.

Nazih: You would do it knowing that there’s a possibility of dying on the way?

Rushdi: If I will go, for the sake of making a living that ensures my children are provided for and safe. Either way, we are dead anyway if we stay.

Rushdi: Your child asks for money to buy a packet of crisps, and you can’t even provide that. I barely make a dollar the entire day. How am I going to give them money to buy a bag of chips? I’d rather die or kill myself than not be able to provide for my child.

Nazih: Few places in Lebanon symbolize the country’s inequality more starkly than Tripoli, where luxury apartment buildings fade into swaths of rundown neighbourhoods. But the dilapidated city is also the hometown of two of the country’s billionaires, Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his brother Taha. Farah explains how these two parallel realities came to be.

Farah: Lebanon has been a hotbed of inequality since its establishment, and we can sense that in disparities when it comes to income, when it comes to health, when it comes to education, when it comes to gender, of course.

Nazih: How do you see the government marginalizing people living on the peripheries of the country?

Farah: Marginalization happens when those people are not provided with the right job opportunities and where they live when they do not enjoy the mobility, physical mobility. So they suffer from mobility injustice. They do not have the means of transportation that can take them at affordable costs to the cities whereby they can work, or they can benefit from decent job opportunities and livelihood opportunities. It happens when there is an economic decision or a political decision to actually, uh, concentrate all of the medical centres um, educational centres, schools, universities, the public services, the public spaces, the physical infrastructure, when everything is centralized in, say, one city that is very remote from these marginalized regions of the country. This is also one way to marginalize these communities. So, marginalization can happen in so many ways.

Nazih: I grew up and lived in Beirut most of my life. I was always aware that life outside the capital is much more difficult than what I had seen growing up, but I never imagined that it would be this bad. We leave Hayy Al Tannak and drive to Hermel in the Beqaa Valley, a place with quite a reputation. Thousands of the residents here are known as “The Wanted,” because there are people wanted by the Lebanese state for a range of crimes, from tribal vendettas to smuggling and drug possession. They aren’t under arrest because if the security forces enter here, it could lead to conflict and unrest, as many are armed and protected by the tribal and political groups. One of them agreed to talk to us if we don’t use his name, we’ll call him Ali.

Ali: If you were living in a respectable country that respects its citizens and respects justice and equality, then there would be no reason to break the law. And we wouldn’t have wanted people. But because we live in a country that does not respect itself nor its citizens, we don’t have justice.

Nazih: Ali’s cousin was murdered in 2011 when Ali and his family felt they could not get justice. He took matters into his own hands, killing the man believed to have murdered his relative. This is common here. In the absence of any state institutions, residents of this village felt they had to create their own system of justice. Ali is 42 years old and has been in hiding from the authorities for the last ten years. So long as he remains in Hermel, he has the protection of his town and tribe. Ali has six children and although he is able to see them, he says he can never pick them up from school or take them on vacation for fear of being arrested the minute he sets foot outside of his town.

Ali: If I were to explain to you what it means to be wanted, I would say it’s like when a person is so thirsty, but they cannot drink, and if they can drink, it’s not enough to quench your thirst. There’s always a barrier between you and life. This is what it means to be wanted.

Nazih: For people like Ali, leaving the country for opportunity elsewhere is impossible. He can’t even leave this village. He can’t go to a hospital when he’s sick, get a job or buy a house. He doesn’t even have the right to vote.

Farah: And this economic exclusion causes social exclusion. And they become so disempowered and so vulnerable that they start to resort to alternative livelihood opportunities or livelihood means, and they start to go into survival mode. They start to conceive for themselves survival strategies that aren’t always legal, that are definitely not formal and that are to their detriment as well. They become so busy putting bread on the table, taking things day by day, worrying about daily struggles and daily grievances that they forget that they are citizens and that they have the right to protest, that they have the right to ask for their rights, and to actually mobilize and voice out on the streets.

Ali: And all we want is to be able to breathe. It is normal to face stress or psychological pressure, but you try staying at home for 2 or 3 days. Maybe the first day is manageable. The second day you start getting a little bored, but by the third day you start feeling trapped. Eventually you feel like you are in prison, just in a cell slightly bigger than a regular prison.

Nazih: Do you ever think about leaving?

Ali: No, I have to think about my children. But I would love to send my children abroad for a better life. There is no future here. But I could never leave my family. Impossible. I won’t even think about it.

Nazih: But you wouldn’t hesitate to send them abroad?

Ali: To secure their future, yes. I will cope with their distance for a couple of years if it guarantees a secure future for them. In the end, what can I do for them here in Lebanon? Even if I managed to provide them with an education, they won’t succeed here and they won’t have stability. We never want to leave our town, but a person’s dignity and livelihood is a priority.

Farah: As long as there is inaction on this level, as long as there is nothing being really done on this level, I do not expect any change to happen, positive change to happen. Instead, I even expect the situation to get worse because impoverishment leads to more impoverishment and it is indeed like a domino effect. It is a trap that people fall in and that they cannot get out of easily, but instead they transmit this from generation to another, and they themselves become poorer and poorer as they lose resources, as the harm of economic hardships gets accumulated.

Nazih: Thanks for listening to this episode of “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” Special thanks to our guests for sharing their experiences. If you like what you’ve just heard, subscribe to our podcast on your preferred podcast or music apps. Tell your family and friends about us, and don’t forget to leave us a rating on Castbox and Apple Podcasts. This episode is produced and written by Layla Yammine and Basant Samhout. Voiceover by Mahmoud Khawaja, Bisher Najjar, Tala Halawa, and Haneen Saleh. Sound design by Siham Arous with music by Firas Abu Fakher. Nada Issa is our executive producer. “Lebanon: Should I stay or should I go?” is a production of Context. The Thomson Reuters Foundation’s digital news platform and Sowt Podcasts. If you want to send us feedback, you can email us at contact@Context.news or follow us on Twitter or Instagram at Contextnewsroom. I am Nazih Osseiran in Beirut, see you next week.