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File photo : Outraged over the collapse of the Lebanese currency Lebanese protesters set the Central Bank on fire, June 20, 2020

BEIRUT – Lebanese medical student Lara Mustafa faces eviction from Russia and the end of her dream of becoming a doctor if her parents, hit by Lebanon’s worst financial crisis in decades, cannot send her money to pay for rent and expenses.

Another medical student, Wassim Hachem, 24, had to drop out from his fourth year of university in Russia to return to Lebanon and work as a delivery driver after his father, who lost his job, was no longer able to support him.

Mustafa and Hachem are among thousands of university students caught up in Lebanon’s financial crisis, which started in 2019 with popular protests against leaders whom demonstrators blamed for corruption and mismanaging the economy.

An insolvent banking system, which had lent more than two thirds of its assets to the central bank and state, shut out all depositors from their dollar accounts, and Lebanon defaulted on its debts.

The COVID-19 pandemic added to mass job losses and business collapses.

Lebanon traditionally prides itself on its education system. American and French missionaries set up schools and universities in the 19th century that became platforms for young Lebanese to further their studies abroad.

That is now becoming a dream for all but the richest, who managed to keep enough of their wealth outside Lebanon.

Some students are struggling to make ends meet even in relatively low-cost countries like Russia.

“You can say that my parents sank into debt in order to be able to send me money,” Mustafa, 23, who is on a scholarship, told Reuters from Russia via Zoom.

“I live in the student dorms. The system at our university is that if I can’t pay the dorm fees not only will I be evicted but I will be forbidden from taking the end-of-semester exam.

“Now I live in austerity, now I calculate every penny.”

NO ACCESS TO MONEY

Some parents of the thousands of Lebanese students abroad have been protesting outside the Banque du Liban (BDL), Lebanon’s central bank.

They insist the central bank forces commercial banks to implement a government decree to allow families with students abroad to transfer up to $10,000 a year at the official exchange rate of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar to cover tuition and expenses.

Until now parents and students say the law is being ignored, with banks and exchange dealers refusing to make transfers at the set rate and instead demanding the market rate, currently around 8,300 Lebanese pounds.

Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh told Reuters that “the law needs applications decrees from the government not from BDL.” Officials at the Lebanese banking association could not immediately be reached for comment.

Mustafa’s mother Nidaa Hassan, 47, said they used to send her between $300-$700 a month but now manage much smaller amounts.

She has taken her other children out of a private school and enrolled them in a state school because her husband’s salary, which was worth $2,000 a month last year, is now equal to $370 after the collapse of the Lebanese pound.

“We are not only borrowing money from here, but also from (family) abroad to be able to send her money. I don’t know how much debt we have accumulated so far,” she said in Beirut.

In a cruel twist, banks that can no longer honour their debts have for over a year denied depositors access to money, so even those with substantial funds cannot withdraw them.

Lebanon’s middle class is being squeezed, and, like many other Lebanese, Nidaa blames the government.

Lebanese politicians are trying to secure foreign aid to help them reduce huge debts, but they have yet to carry out the reforms that potential donors are demanding.

The fact that they have been unable to form a government since the last one resigned in August over what it called endemic corruption is exacerbating the problem, according to Western diplomats.

‘I LOST EVERYTHING’

Mohammad Kassar, 22, was into his fifth year of medicine in Ukraine, aiming to become a general practitioner, when he was forced to return home in May because his father, whose furniture business went bust, was no longer able to transfer him money.

“It is a very harsh feeling to lose hope. In one year I lost all the five years I have invested in…I lost the past, the present and the future. I lost everything,” Kassar said.

Nadia Moussa, mother of Wassim Hachem, said her focus was now on survival.

“Our dream now is to be able to eat, to put food on the table. Can we dream of anything else?”

Wael Dib Hajj, a 30-year-old consultant, saved up for seven years and was accepted into Yale’s MBA programme this year. But after requesting documents from the university, his bank refused to transfer the tuition fees.

“When I first put the deposit in the bank, I had told them it would be for education…When the papers were ready, they said the file was okay, but then as soon as they saw the amount, they were like ‘no way, forget about it’.

“These are my savings from my job and they’re in dollars…I’ve been saving for this for seven years.”

He said that Yale had agreed to defer his studies until next year. He plans to apply for a loan, but since that would cover about 80%, he will work to cover the rest.

(Reuters)

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