When I used to look at Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, Brazil’s infamous shanty towns, dotting the city’s lush mountains overlooking its glorious shores, it was difficult to imagine the existence of such dire poverty. I had never seen anything like that anywhere I had been, nor had I seen anything like it in Lebanon. It seemed like an irreversible curse that a country, blessed with such beauty and with a people so happy and content with the simple pleasures in life, had to endure such injustice and inequality.
Years later, and on the other side of the Atlantic, similar thoughts came to mind as I wandered the frighteningly narrow alleys of Morocco’s ancient city of Fez. Although the poverty wasn’t as shocking as it could have been elsewhere, its suffocating crowds concentrated in such a small geographical area and the squalid living and working conditions of its people were shocking. I also imagined Lebanon, as I thought that nothing of this nature existed back home. Although there were pockets of luxury in every other corner of the city, the poverty of Fez overshadowed it by far, and I knew there could never be anything like that where I called home.
I soon discovered that there was. And there still is. But there isn’t anything new about this.
Many city dwellers in Lebanon often do not realize that they live in their own little artificial bubble with little to connect them to the broader reality of the rest of the country. Poverty in Lebanon is spread out and spreading, and is often dire. Many locate it in far out places like Tripoli, Akkar, villages in South Lebanon or remote areas in the Bekaa. This is true, but it doesn’t take long to discover, if one is really willing and ready to, that poverty is also much closer to home, in and around Beirut, in neighborhoods adjacent to luxury and prosperity.
So what is new? What is new is that poverty has become so dire and people so desperate, that they are willing to give up the little they’ve got and risk their very own lives for the hope of a better life.
Lebanon has never been able to properly provide for its citizens, and sometimes not even a decent life. Reasons for this have varied throughout the years, but have almost always led people to emigrate to carve a better future for themselves and their loved ones with their own bare hands. In the earlier years of emigration, people indeed risked their lives and many died before reaching their promised land of opportunity, whether in the Americas or Africa. But that was in the 19th century. Today, this is still happening, as witnessed in the recent Indonesian boat tragedy, even though we are in 2013. Cynics will blame the West, countries of the industrialized world (in this case Australia) that have started locking their doors to humble foreign emigrants and question their democratic and human rights credentials. There is much truth to this, but it is also true that had we been in their place, we may have done the same too. Isn’t this what we are trying to do in the face of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, knocking on our doors too?
It isn’t so much about how other countries force our people to risk their lives to illegally enter their lands, hoping to make a decent living and eventually hoping to become legal aliens and not live in constant pursuit of the law. But it is also about what Lebanon isn’t doing to keep its own people here as well, or at least, stopping them from risking their lives, giving up the little they have been left to acquire and leaving behind all their anxieties (from the poverty, lack of security and daily humiliation), even at the expense of their dignity, and consciously deciding to risk it all for a better life.
Honestly, it is about having to deal with that one thought expressed by one of the survivors, who despite the horrific ordeal, would still consider travelling again, risking everything, even his life, for something slightly better…