BY Sarah Kaddoura
My mother reached her sixties expecting some relief. She grew up in Palestinian refugee camps all over Lebanon, then left those camps to study abroad, get married, and came back to the country with a child. She raised three children until she lost her husband to illness – he was waiting, day after day, in a hospital bed, for the right amount of money to be raised so he could get a liver transplant. She raised all three of us kids scraping through UNRWA (United Nations for Relief and Work for Palestinian Refugees) food donations and some jobs here and there. Like other families that grew up in an expensive yet poor country, us refugees relied on aid relief from the UN, and citizens relied on aid relief from political parties that monopolize resources.
A few years ago, all her children, including myself, started working in different capacities. Today, her body is tired, and the bodily manifestations of all the physical and care labor she poured into us have started showing. In her sixties, she expected relief: the kids bringing in some income to support so she can buy herself medications, supplements, and some nutritious nuts – today considered a luxury – to add to the meals she cooks. It is the way when families work in countries that provide nothing for the elderly and consider them dispensable. She thought that maybe with enough help she can leave her tiring, low-paying job by her seventies.
By the end of 2019, we all knew Lebanon was heading towards one of the harshest financial crises. One dollar used to be worth 15,000 Lebanese Liras, but then it quickly lost value over the last three years. By February 1st, it had already lost 90% of its value, leaving around 80% of people in Lebanon living in poverty. Lebanon is a country in which everything is dollarized and dependent on imports – a strategy often placed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
At the same time, the IMF comes in to save the day, of course, and in the tradition of a failing Lebanese state desperate for a bail, a round of preparatory austerity policies starts taking place. Subsidies on food, medications, fuel, and daily items are lifted. People’s salaries are stagnant and devalued. The savior fund with all its austerity measures has not been accepted yet, but initial agreements have already been set in place. People have been living in preparation for a nightmare that cannot even be perceived: on one hand, they are scared of an IMF bail-out plan that would put the country in even more debt, and on the other hand, the Lebanese state has already initiated measures that show they do not care for its people.
How much worse can things get if most girls and women cannot afford menstrual products? How can the health industry be even more exclusive, if a regular checkup costs more than a person’s average income? How can a school teacher drive to work, when a week’s fuel consumption is higher than her devalued salary? How many more doctors, therapists, and professionals will leave the country, when we need care the most? How many more families will be separated because of unemployment? What basic service will become a luxury next? How much more racist and xenophobic discourse can the Lebanese state produce, to shift the blame for a decades-in-the-making financial collapse from banks and governments to refugees who are receiving aid, before this turns into a bloodbath? It is scary to think about all the harm and violence done to people on every level due to the crisis. It is even scarier to witness how easy it is to get away with systemic murder by blaming refugees, overpopulation, and unequal access to aid, putting some of the country’s most marginalized in danger.
It is known that the IMF approaches austerity measures with the goal of generating profit to guarantee debt repayment. This always comes at the expense of people.
My mother, like many women her age in a country without welfare, was not expecting a retirement package. She did not even have money in the bank to lose, or health insurance to mourn. She did not, however, expect to start rationing again, eating one meal a day, replacing her butter with fat, taking her supplements only when she feels sick, showering in cold water once a week, sitting in the dark when no one is around to save electricity, and prioritizing my brother getting a nutritious meal over herself.
In the big balance sheet of debt and interest, and across the board when austerity policies are debated, it is my mother, and millions of other individuals – citizen, refugee or migrant – who pay the price.