Funds sent back by emigrants to Africa are helping residents in Zrariyeh, about 75 kilometers south of Beirut, survive Lebanon's full-blown economic crisis.
ZRARIYEH — As a glowing dusk gives way to darkness, this southern Lebanese village succumbs to a kind of drowsiness when the COVID-19 curfew begins. Indeed, activity during the day is already moving at a slower pace as a result of the multiple crises that are shaking the country.
But the inhabitants of this Shiite town, where most make a living from trade or construction, say they are closing ranks in the face of the economic and financial collapse. "We live from day to day. But in Zrariyeh, solidarity is at its best," says Mohamed Fakih, a young pharmacy employee. "Here, for example, chronically ill patients who cannot afford to pay for their treatment are taken care of by benefactors."
Benefactors? "People who are in Africa," says 23-year-old Fakih, born in the Côte d'Ivoire city of Abidjan, where his parents still live.
Lebanon is famous for the extent of its diaspora. In Zrariyeh, nearly a third of the 15,000 registered voters live in Côte d'Ivoire. The flashiest Zrariyeh houses belong to the wealthiest among them, and the shutters only open during the summer visits. There are also many families living elsewhere in Africa, Europe or the United States.
"Our diaspora in Africa has ensured the development of the village," says Adnane Jezzini, the president of this municipality, who understandably cherishes these donors-voters. "For the past year, some inhabitants have really depended on the financial support of their relatives emigrants to live. Their generosity also allows us to support the poorest."
With his family to take care of, Hassan Zorqat struggles financially with his job as a painter. To survive, the 46-year-old traded his car for a moped and received help from the diaspora. "Everything has become very expensive," he says.
In the grocery stores, Syrian or Turkish products have replaced their European counterparts.
In Zrariyeh, nearly a third of the 15,000 registered voters live in Côte d'Ivoire — Photo: Live Love Zrerieh
"Money from abroad plays the role of a shock absorber for our society. It is true here, and for all Lebanese families who have someone who has emigrated," says Mohamed Mroué, a former resident in Abidjan, while smoking a hookah at the foot of his expensive house, not far from Zrariyeh.
In this country, the support of the diaspora probably explains in part why hyperinflation, coupled with the collapse of the local currency, hasn't yet led to a social conflagration.
"There are also the reflexes of unstable countries. Many households keep cash at home, just in case," Mroué, 55, explains. "When that cash dries up, things will get more complicated."
Mroué was a long-time entrepreneur in the plastics industry in Côte d'Ivoire before handing the business over to his sons. He now participates in mutual aid through "collections." One of these private initiatives has enabled the purchase of tablets for students in Zrariyeh, who are forced to attend school online because of the coronavirus.
Sending money, however, has become more complicated. The Lebanese living in Africa have lost confidence in Beirut's banks. For the past year, their savings have been frozen there, like all deposits from ordinary customers. In addition, "People in the South of Lebanon feel like a sword of Damocles is hanging over their heads because of the U.S. sanctions against Hezbollah, even though they and their people have nothing to do with the party's finances," says Mroué.
Since 2016, Washington has increased these sanctions, hoping to cut off the tap to the powerful armed Shiite movement. Tehran's ally is the sworn enemy of the United States and Israel.
As the financial crisis looks set to be long, some are also thinking of leaving — Photo: Mohamed Zorkot
To provide for the needs of their relatives in the village, the diaspora in Côte d'Ivoire has taken to conveying currency in person, according to several sources. "Every end of the month, families withdraw small sums in dollars sent by their relatives from the West. Little is coming from Africa," says Ali Hachem, 44, in his Western Union office in front of the central square of Zrariyeh. This square is lined with bougainvilleas, palm trees and black flags with the name of Imam Hussein, the central figure of Shiite Islam.
Dominated by Amal (the party led by the incumbent speaker of the Parliament, Nabih Berri), the village claims a certain diversity. If there are the portraits of Moussa Sadr, the founder of Amal, or Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, there is also the face of Che Guevara on communist banners.
Young people from here participated in the uprising of 2019 against the political class. But Washington's pressures against Hezbollah and its allies are causing a boomerang effect in the South: They contribute to strengthening community solidarity and are denounced as an effort to impose a new political deal in Lebanon.
As Lebanon prepares for difficult days, many people try to diversify work activities. According to several locals, land that was no longer cultivated is now sown, sometimes on a small subsistence scale. "My uncle grows everything we need for cooking," says Mohamed Fakih, the pharmacist.
As this financial crisis looks set to be long, some are also thinking of leaving. Adnane Jezzini, the president of the municipality, says that more than 70 men from Zrariyeh have joined the ranks of expatriates in Côte d'Ivoire in recent months — sometimes as laborers. His wife, Dalida, sent their eldest son to Senegal to stay with her own parents.
As for Mohamed Fakih, who aspired to live in Lebanon "to break the cycle where we only think about one thing all year round — coming back here in the summer," his dream is in jeopardy. He plans to leave, but doesn't yet know where to go.