In peacetime, Assaf paid $10 each for rocking horses from a Syrian factory. The plant and many others have been destroyed, so now he must buy the toy for $17 from China. The double bind, and competition from cut-rate unlicensed toy stores opened by Syrians, could put him out of business.
Other merchants in this eastern gateway to Damascus tell the same story, which reflects badly on Lebanon’s economy. Lebanon’s unemployment rate will double to 20 percent in 2014, the World Bank predicts, as Syrian refugees flood the tiny nation’s labor market.
Jim Yong Kim, the World Bank’s president, warned this week that Lebanon is heading for disaster. “We need to do much more or we risk catastrophe in Lebanon,” Kim said in a speech Tuesday at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He called on countries to donate more.
To equate the crisis to America, imagine the economic and social dislocation if 56 million refugees poured into the United States, 45 million of them since January. Kim points out that the number would be equivalent to the ratio of refugees that have entered Lebanon.
And he’s just using official figures. If you add unregistered refugees, one-quarter of Lebanon’s population are Syrians. That’s equivalent to 79 million refugees entering the United States while guards abandoned borders during, say, a federal government shutdown. Consider all of Germany moving in with us.
Lebanon may seem a long way away from Oregon, but an economic collapse here could destabilize the Middle East, as the nation’s civil war did from 1975 to 1990.
Baalbek, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, is a front-line town in terms of Syria’s civil war. During peacetime, residents could choose to drive an hour and a half to either Beirut or Damascus. Many chose the Syrian capital for its sublime Islamic architecture, its delicious cuisine and mosaic of culture and faiths.
International tourists often stopped in Baalbek for its spectacular Roman ruins, which include the remains of the massive Temple of Jupiter completed around 60 A.D. The ruins, with some of the largest building blocks ever used, remain breathtaking, especially at sunset. But these days the grounds are unkempt and deserted.
“Tourists, ha, ha, you make me laugh!” said grocery store owner Ali Yahfoufi Wednesday. “We used to have people from Germany, Switzerland, the USA. But now nobody comes here because of Syria.”
Yahfoufi’s business suffers from inflation and competition with international nonprofits that hand out food. He says he’d be out of business if he had to pay rent for the store, which he owns.
He could save money by laying off his one employee, who earns $500 a month, and instead paying a Syrian perhaps $135. Plenty of stores do. And businesses hire Syrian children for a pittance to work in farm fields or perform other menial labor.
“But if a Syrian is in my store, I can’t speak my feelings about the war, not knowing whether he supports the regime or the opposition,” Yahfoufi said. “And he might work today and leave tomorrow for slightly more pay somewhere else. Or maybe if things go better for a while in Syria, he’d want to go home.”
Yahfoufi wouldn’t say which side he supports in Syria. But he perceives conditions going from bad to worse, and predicts effects will linger. “For example, the person who killed your father or your brother, how can you speak with him or live with him?”
One contingency Yahfoufi doesn’t support is U.S. air strikes, which he expects would enlarge the war. The worst scenario, he said, would be if the conflict spread into Lebanon, precarious as it is with a weak economy and caretaker government.
“We had enough of that,” Yahfoufi said, “with our own civil war.”
By: Richard Read
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