The situation is so dire that they can’t even afford the bus fare to visit.
"They used to call me the rich man of the village,” said Hussein Kassar. “I helped my brothers and my father, but now I am the one who needs help.” The Kassars live in a hamlet of about 15 families in the north of Lebanon near the Syrian border. Their house comprises three concrete rooms, built when Kassar was earning a good salary – up to $1,500 a month – working in a restaurant in Beirut. Kassar and his wife, Najwa, have six children. The youngest, Abdullah, was six months old when I met them in October. “It was not our plan to have this baby,” said Kassar, looking a little sheepish. “It was God’s plan.”
For the past two years, as the Lebanese economy has imploded, Kassar has had no work at all. He has sold his three cars and his tractor, his laptop and his mobile phone. He borrowed money and is now $5,000 in debt. Last summer he was able to find some work picking fruit, for which he earned around $4 a day.
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“They used to call me the rich man of the village. I helped my brothers and my father, but now I am the one who needs help”
The village has its own generator, but the Kassars can only afford enough energy to power a small TV and a few light bulbs. The fridge is too dear. Their only heat in winter comes from a wood-burning stove, though logs are getting more expensive. Every week Kassar spends $6 just to buy 15 barrels of water from a tanker. A shortage of powdered milk has pushed the cost of the few tins available to an extortionate $10 each. Baby Abdullah survives on tea and bread.
The stress of poverty has distorted all their relationships. “Before you arrived we were fighting,” Hussein told me. “It’s to release the pressure,” said Najwa. “I used to call my family in the evenings. Now there is nothing to do, so we go to sleep early. Before we had a lot of friends and we don’t anymore. The kids are always complaining … I tell them they will have what God brings us.”
The Kassars realised in 2021 that they could not afford the bus fare to send their four eldest children to school. They applied to have them taken in by an orphanage. “It was a hard decision,” Hussein told me. “But we can only choose between bad and worse.”
Protests in Lebanon erupted in October 2019, following the government’s decision to impose taxes on hookahs and WhatsApp phone calls, among other things, in a vain effort to plug the gigantic holes in the country’s budget. The corrupt and cash-strapped government had been keeping itself afloat by means of financial chicanery involving the entire banking system, which the World Bank likened to a Ponzi scheme. When the crash came, ordinary Lebanese found they could not get their money out of their bank accounts. They were understandably furious.
The restaurant where Hussein worked shut during the protests, then remained closed for the next two years because of the covid-19 pandemic. The Lebanese economy descended into a spiral of hyperinflation and debt default. Ordinary Lebanese paid the price. Since 2018 the economy has contracted by 60%. The United Nations now classifies over 80% of Lebanese as suffering from multi-dimensional poverty, a measure that takes into account the state’s failure to provide basic services. According to the World Bank, GDP per head fell from $7,700 a year in 2010 to $4,100 in 2021.
The stress of poverty has distorted all their relationships. “Before you arrived we were fighting,” Hussein told me. “It’s to release the pressure,” said Najwa.
The Lebanese state has ceased to function. There is very little mains water or electricity from the national grid; state hospitals are running out of drugs; doctors, nurses and teachers have left the country in droves. Savings have been spent, valuables have been sold, the charity of friends and family has been exhausted.
The Kassars were lucky to find spaces for their children at the Dar al-Aytam Islamic orphanage in the hills outside Bebnine, a nearby town. It is run by an Islamic charity that operates around 50 institutions across Lebanon. These house and teach special-needs children and adults, but since the crisis many specialised programmes have been shut down. There is no system of foster care in Lebanon and all children’s homes are privately run, mostly by religious organisations. In the summer of 2022 the orphanage had a far higher number of applications than usual – almost 1,000 for, at most, 150 places. Many of the children are handed over by parents who cannot afford to care for them. They take in the neediest and focus on looking after younger children.
It takes new arrivals some time to adjust. Often the kids are skinny, dirty and introverted. Some are yellow with jaundice or have bruises on their backs because violence against children is common. The staff always ask the child if they would prefer to have help that would allow them to stay at home or to live at the orphanage. Sometimes the parents are annoyed that their child is given such agency, but Nahid al-Masri, the orphanage’s psychologist, told me this is an essential question. “This place is not a prison.”
Even those who move in are encouraged to spend regular weekends with their families. Most return home for two months over the summer. Increasingly, parents cannot afford the bus fare to collect their children for visits home. “The kids are beginning to wet their beds. They cry, sometimes cut themselves, hit out, become aggressive,” said al-Masri. “This is becoming a huge problem for us.” The orphanage is now raising money to pay for parents to visit their children.
Al-Masri introduced me to Ahmed, who was four years old and had arrived only two weeks earlier (all the names of the children have been changed to protect their identities). He avoided eye contact and bent his head to the floor, chewing his bottom lip with his arms hugged around his stomach.
Savings have been spent, valuables have been sold, the charity of friends and family has been exhausted
The first two or three weeks are a transitional phase. Children have regular, hearty meals, perhaps for the first time in months. They are given new clothes to replace those that are torn or patched. Slowly, they realise that no one is going to hit them. They stop hanging back, lift up their chins and make eye contact. Their sleep improves. “After a few weeks”, said al-Masri, “they begin to find their identity. They learn that their bodies are their own. They create their own boundaries. When they play, they stop hitting out.” Within a few months, they “draw and talk and laugh like normal kids”. (I met one child who sketched skeletons when he arrived; now he’s into trees.)
Fatimeh was seven with a gap-toothed smile. She wore a pink dress with a pastel rainbow and faux-pearl earrings. She had been at the orphanage for several years and shaken off any shyness she might have had. She counted her friends on her fingers, “There is Alla and Youssef and Asia and Henad – not too many boys! Boys play football and make a lot of noise.”
Al-Masri told me Fatimeh’s mother is often hospitalised with bipolar disorder and lives in a tent in a Syrian refugee camp. “Sometimes my mom gets dizzy,” Fatimeh said, “but I don’t know what to do to help her. I go and tell the neighbours and they call for the doctor to take her to hospital. And she says, ‘Don’t take me, I want to stay with my daughter!’”
She happily explained her family’s circumstances. “My Dad is far away. I don’t see him a lot. I love my mother so much and she loves me a lot. I am the apple of her eye. Last week I was with her, but we didn’t go out much. We used to but we don’t anymore. We don’t have a TV. My mother can’t pay for the satellite because the money went up.”
Kawthar Eitani, the director of the orphanage, lit a cigarette. She complained that, like everything else, the price of a pack had gone up. This was unfortunate since, she said, “everyone I know is smoking now!” On her fingers she enumerated the various crises: the electricity crisis, the water crisis, the rubbish crisis, the fuel crisis, the banking crisis, the sewage crisis. “And, ten days ago, there was a bread crisis.” Everyone woke up to find that the bakeries had no bread. “Why?” I asked. Eitani gave a defeated sigh. Her shoulders slumped as she lit another cigarette and opened her palms as if to say, “Who knows?” She told me she hardly had the energy to follow the news anymore.
She enumerated the various crises: the electricity crisis, the water crisis, the rubbish crisis, the fuel crisis, the banking crisis, the sewage crisis
The Dar al-Aytam Islamic orphanages used to receive about a half of their budget from the government. They’ve received hardly any money from the state over the past three years, and are now entirely reliant on private donations. But these are drying up as people prioritise their own families. Eitani reckons she can find only around 30% of the operating budget she needs. There are about 300 private orphanages throughout Lebanon housing roughly 40,000 children in need, and they all are in the same situation.
Before the crisis, the orphanage had 85 staff; now it has 58. Yet almost all of its 254 beds are filled. (In 2021 there were kids in urgent need that it couldn’t accommodate, so it now keeps 15 beds free in case of emergencies.) Its programme teaching deaf and blind children has been stopped. Before, she used to take the children on outings to bookshops, museums and water parks; now she cannot. “I am angry,” said Eitani.
“Apples are in season now,” so the children are “getting a lot of apples”. Eitaini worries that the diet is affecting their mood. “Chocolate, chicken, avocado, fish are important mood stabilisers, especially for children,” she said, but she couldn’t afford to buy them.
As she spoke, there was a burst of gunfire outside. “It’s olive-harvest season,” Eitani told me. “Farmers are firing in the air to deter thieves.” In Lebanon, she said, the formal rule of law had never been strong. Instead, “our culture protected and provided these values. But now society is cracking.”
“You feel unsafe,” said Eitani. She told me that most people no longer went out after dark because there were bandits who held up cars. She had asked a driver to bring her to the orphanage that day, because she was afraid to travel back alone. “There has been a huge shift in morality,” she said. Mothers prostitute themselves, fathers steal. Parents are marrying their daughters off younger, at just 13 or 14, in order not to have another mouth to feed. The divorce rate has spiked: Eitani told me that women are leaving their unemployed husbands and moving back in with their families. Many are risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. A couple of weeks before my visit more than 90 people drowned off the coast when a boat capsized.
Cholera arrived in the region during the week of my visit. “Yesterday”, Eitani told me, “they had a hundred cases come into the local hospital”
And if that was not enough, cholera arrived in the region during the week of my visit. “Yesterday”, Eitani told me, “they had a hundred cases come into the local hospital.” She was organising separate toilets for infected children and testing the water at great expense.
I visited the small hospital in Bebnine, which was overwhelmed. The waiting room heaved with people coughing into surgical masks. A woman sat on the end of the bed where her daughter, a toddler, lay asleep. The girl had fallen ill the night before, coughing, throwing up and running a fever. The family had bought what they believed was filtered drinking water from a tanker, just as everyone else had.
Kifar Kissar, the senior doctor, had witnessed the decline in public health over the course of the crisis: E. coli, salmonella and squamous-cell cancer, which can be caused by water contaminated with arsenic. He said that last year the town received $20,000 from the central government to fund the services for 60,000 people.
Kissar’s eyes filled with tears. He squeezed the bridge of his nose with his fingertips and lowered his mask for a moment to wipe his eyes with a tissue. He had no words.
“Can it get worse?” I asked.
“Of course it can get worse.” He thumped the table in frustration.