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Forced to choose between generator power, food, medicine and education, Lebanese families are struggling through a worsening crisis

Helene Gergi stands by the window at her candlelit apartment in central Beirut, where power is only intermittently available, usually for two- to four-hour periods.Photography by Hasan Shaaban/The Globe and Mail

Helene Gergi opens the door to her pitch-black home, lit only by a candle and a tiny flashlight that barely catch the outline of her dress, white hair and glasses.

“I’m not afraid as long as I’m living in my own home,” she said, appearing small and frail as she sat in a white plastic chair.

Ms. Gergi has lived in this apartment in Mar Elias, a friendly neighbourhood in central Beirut, for her entire life. She spends her day looking out the window, cleaning her home and cooking whenever there is a brief return of public electricity, usually lasting anywhere from two to four hours, depending on the day. At night, in the dark, she prays and sleeps.

Lebanon’s economy is in a meltdown, which has led to shortages of medicine and fuel – and power cuts.

Ms. Gergi used to play music and dance in the window. She doesn’t dance any more, but she doesn’t complain either. “God wants me to be strong,” she said.

She can’t afford a private generator but receives some money from a charitable organization and from relatives, which she mostly spends on food. She is not alone in dealing with the challenges of life in Lebanon, exacerbated by a worsening economic crisis that’s been free-falling since 2019.

Described as one of the world’s worst financial crises in modern history by the World Bank, the country’s currency has lost 90 per cent of its value in less than two years.

Lebanon’s downfall has left its cash-strapped central bank warning that it could no longer continue to subsidize fuel purchases, which have drained its foreign reserves. Last month, the new government – in power since Sept. 10 – raised the price of fuel a couple of times, as part of a gradual lifting of subsidies.

Electricity cuts across the country now last between 20 and 22 hours a day. The situation is so dire that Lebanon’s state power company, Electricite du Liban, warned of a total blackout as its fuel reserves dwindle.

Meanwhile, the cost of private generators is climbing and Lebanese who rely on them worry that expense might soon be out of reach.

At top, candlelight shines faintly from Ms. Gergi's apartment. She can't afford a private generator, like the one whose fusebox is shown at bottom, to power her way through the blackouts.

The country’s economic crisis recently prompted the United Nations to call the situation a “living nightmare,” with people finding themselves in circumstances that were inconceivable even a year ago.

“More and more Lebanese households are unable to afford basic expenses like food, health, electricity, water, internet, fuel and education. For the most vulnerable among the poor, the impact is extremely devastating, and surviving has become their only goal,” Najat Rochdi, UN resident and humanitarian co-ordinator for Lebanon, said last week.

The UN estimates 78 per cent of Lebanon’s population is living below the poverty line. Starvation has become a growing reality for thousands.

For some, that struggle means not being able to afford a generator at all, medicine or children’s school fees. Many say they would leave the country if they could.

The economic crisis is rooted in decades-long problems with political mismanagement and corruption. It’s been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, the continuing war in neighbouring Syria and the Beirut port blast in August, 2020, which killed more than 200 people and injured thousands. There are still no answers as to what caused highly explosive materials stored in the port for years to ignite and no one has been held accountable.

Lebanon’s recently formed government has said that improving electricity production is one of its top priorities. But previous governments failed to agree on a permanent solution for the country’s chronic shortages, and the gap between supply and demand has only increased over time.

Marc Ayoub, a researcher at Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut (AUB), said the country lacks vision. “This crisis has shown that we are a country running on diesel – for hospitals, for bread, for everything. All service sectors relied on this, and this was the total collapse,” he said.

Leila Dagher, an associate professor of economics at AUB, attributed the mess to more than 30 years of financial, social and other types of mismanagement. “The primary reason for this kind of catastrophic mismanagement is the sectarian political system that we have and the resulting lack of accountability from this system; also of course corruption and incompetence runs rampant in the country,” she said.

Prof. Dagher said she believes the only solution is an agreement with the International Monetary Fund. “We are unable to do the reforms that we have to do, so the only way to do it, and get out of this crisis, is through an IMF program.”

Living in a country that feels like it’s on the verge of collapse is gruelling. For those relying solely on public electricity, it means moving quickly to get household chores done while you can.

When the power comes on in Ms. Gergi’s apartment, she cooks only as much as she can eat because otherwise, she will have to throw out food. Without electricity, she washes her clothes by hand. “God get rid of them,” she said, referring to politicians.

In the dark, she slowly gets up from her chair and carries the candle through a door into her bedroom. On a cabinet beside the window is a photo of her mother. “My mom was pretty,” she said. Above the window, there’s a photo of her nephew. “He died in the civil war,” she said. “Every era, there’s a new crisis.”

At top, the candle illuminates family photos and flowers in Ms. Gergi's bedroom. At bottom, Faisal Homsi across the street holds a pile of dirty dishes in his kitchen.

Across the street, Faisal Homsi, a 58-year-old Syrian man, also stands in near darkness. He can’t afford a generator, but his neighbours allow him to access a wire that comes from their house so that he can turn on a lamp.

Mr. Homsi, who has lived in Lebanon for 35 years, shares a small apartment with his two grown sons. Mattresses sit on each side of the room and there are ashtrays scattered between them. In addition to being without electricity, they don’t have water either. He said the situation is like “waiting for death. Living, but waiting for death.”

In the kitchen, dishes are stacked on the floor, surrounded by empty water gallons that Mr. Homsi fills up to do the washing. Sometimes water comes through the pipes, but if it does, it’s not much. He’s lived without water, and not much power, for nearly a year, he said. One day last week, public electricity came on from 3 a.m. until 6 a.m.

In a corner by the kitchen, the washing machine has clothes sitting in water. Like many others, Mr. Homsi tries to wash his clothes when the power comes on, but it often doesn’t last long enough to finish a cycle, so the clothes sit soaking.

“It’s very difficult, it’s all related to the dollar,” he said, referring to the value of the Lebanese currency against the rising U.S. dollar.

Mr. Homsi said he can make some money with his coffee cart, a small beverage stand attached to a three-wheeled motorcycle. But if he can’t afford gas, he can’t work. The rising dollar also means his family can’t afford to buy medicine in Lebanon, so they buy it in Syria instead.

On the front porch of her Beirut home, Fatiya Iskandar, top right, sits with her sister, Naameh Iskandar. Her grandchildren, bottom, have also gathered here.

Across downtown Beirut, in Karantina, one of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods, located near the port, a large family is on the porch of their ground-floor apartment as the kids play nearby. At night, they said, mattresses are scattered everywhere and the 12 family members take turns sleeping on the porch where they can feel a bit of a breeze.

Fatiya Iskandar, 68, the matriarch of the family, said their home was destroyed in the explosion and ever since she has been terrified of sounds. Even a door closing brings her back to that day. Charitable organizations helped rebuild her home and provided support. They still do, but not as much as before, and now the family is trying to get by amidst a crashing economy and without electricity.

“Electricity is everything. Washing, cooking, food; even you need electricity to charge your phone,” she said.

They turn their generator on at 9:30 a.m., let it run for two hours, and then turn it back on at 4 p.m. The price is increasing though, and they might not be able to afford it for much longer. They rely mostly on food from an NGO, and sell some Pepsi and water to earn a bit of money.

Sitting with Fatiya on the porch is her sister, Naameh Iskandar. She said she doesn’t have a generator at home in her village in the south, because her family can’t afford it. They also can’t afford medicine to treat her husband’s cancer or the fees to put their kids in school, she said.

As the group chats outside, the minimal lights inside go off. The generator’s power has cut. Fatiya said washing clothes is like stealing something – you have to do it fast. Inside, even during the day, the place has gone dark. “We are surviving,” she said.

At top, Ms. Iskandar checks her fridge with a cellphone light. At bottom, Dani Fayoumi looks over the shelves of his general store, which his family has owned for decades.

Across Beirut, some shopkeepers sit in the dark, waiting for the electricity to kick in.

Dani Fayoumi, 47, owns a small general store in Hamra, one of the busiest neighbourhoods in Beirut, where the main street is full of restaurants and cafés. The shop has been in his family for 70 years. He said he’s doing okay, because he’s not selling brand-name items; most of his products come from Syria and Turkey.

Mr. Fayoumi shares a subscription for a generator with someone nearby, but still he is in debt trying to cover its cost. And when there’s no power? “I sit in the dark,” he said.

As he talks about the increasing rate of the dollar, a supplier comes by to tell him how much he owes for plastic bags and cups. The cost has increased since the day before, so he sends the supplier away, telling him to come back when the dollar falls.

“We hope someone will interfere in Lebanon and help,” he said, calling it an “economic war.”

“Even during the civil war, when you had bombings and shootings and assassinations, life was better. … Nothing was missing from the market and there was war. Now it’s worse than war.”

With reports from Associated Press

Lebanon on the brink: More on The Decibel

When he was reporting on the Lebanon crisis this past summer, senior international correspondent Mark MacKinnon spoke on the Decibel podcast to explain its causes with host Tamara Khandaker. Subscribe for more episodes.

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