Lebanon’s financial pains eased by remittances over holidays

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BEIRUT (AP) — Youssef Safouri wandered through a noisy jam-packed Beirut Christmas market, where the hundreds of families who flocked to stands selling gifts by Lebanese designers belied a severe economic crisis that has sapped the savings of millions.

Safouri is among thousands of Lebanese who left the country when its economy started to tumble in late 2019. They have now become a lifeline for families back home who receive remittances from abroad and cash brought in suitcases during holiday visits. Three-quarters of the population is now plunged into poverty.

From his new home in Canada, Safouri, an accountant, sends part of his monthly salary back to his family to help cover skyrocketing monthly expenses, from private generator and water bills to surging food prices.

“Everyone is having a hard time getting their money out of the bank and trying to cover their basic expense at home,” he said. “I was forced to leave the country and my family to make money abroad and send it back.”

Lebanon will receive roughly $6.8 billion in remittances this year, up from almost $6.4 billion in 2021, as they continue to be a core component of the country’s shrinking and battered economy. The World Bank estimates they are worth almost 38% of the country’s gross domestic product.

Apart from the remittances sent from abroad, many of the diaspora return during the holiday season, bringing with them much-needed cash dollars.

Caretaker Tourism Minister Walid Nassar said last month that the crisis-hit country is expecting some 700,000 people to come into the country during the holiday season, most of them of Lebanese descent. He estimated they will bring some $1.5 billion between December and mid-January.

Beirut international airport is expected to receive 6.1 million tourists this year, about 400,000 more than in 2021, with daily arrivals doubling during the holiday season.

Since Lebanon’s financial meltdown over three years ago, banks have essentially locked out depositors from their own savings as they suffered losses worth tens of billions of dollars. The country’s mismanaged economy for decades has been mired in corruption and wasteful spending.

Before its fragile economy collapsed, Lebanon had a sizable middle class that was able to spend money to celebrate Christmas and other holidays with family.

The crisis has forced a drastic lifestyle change for most of the country, unable to afford skyrocketing costs for Christmas gifts and celebrations.

Farah Jurdi, a mother of two, says her husband’s job in Saudi Arabia over the past decade has been crucial for her to avoid having to compromise on her children’s quality of life. With the economic crisis, it has become even more critical, as he helps his parents and his siblings with their expenses as well.

“I always worry that he would have to come back to Lebanon one day, because life will not be the same,” she said.

Remittances have become necessary not only for celebrating the holidays but for many families in Lebanon they cover the most basic household expenses, said Mohamad Faour, assistant professor of Finance at the American University of Beirut.

“Prices are steadily reverting back to pre-crisis levels, but salary increases are nowhere near these levels,” he said. “Someone earning a salary of 5 million Lebanese pounds (about $113) cannot afford a generator bill unless some relative sends them U.S. dollars.”

At the Christmas market, which was filled with hundreds of families strolling past the maze of decorated stands and enjoying live music, most refused to talk about the remittances they receive from relatives abroad and the lifestyle changes they’ve had to endure.

But the planner behind the event admitted they have had to go the extra mile to make their Christmas market more affordable this year. They have included more affordable pop-up gift shops and cut entry fees for children.

“People who live in Lebanon need a breath of fresh air or a change of scenery,” organizer Cynthia Wardi said.

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