Lebanon’s Urban Youth

Challenging the status quo

by Spencer Osberg

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“Living here and working here isn’t working,” says Walid Khoury, a 20-year-old student in Beirut, Lebanon. “Not in a million years will life in Lebanon improve, but I would be very happy if it did. Don’t get me wrong.”

Mr. Khoury is far from alone in his pessimism. Countless Lebanese youth express similar sentiments; many others plan on emigrating or have already done so in recent years.

Christine Labban, a 19-year-old high school senior, says she intends on moving to New York when she graduates to pursue a career in fashion photography.

“It’s not stable here, and it scares people,” she says. “Outside, there’s much more safety and security, financially and politically.”

Ms. Labban also cites the inequity that women face in Lebanon’s job market. She says employers presume that a man supports a family and deserves a better salary than a woman with the same qualifications.

“Employers think a woman doesn’t need to get paid because it’s just a hobby for her,” she says. “That’s not right. That’s sexist.”

The youth who do stay in Lebanon and attend college often set their sights on graduate school or a career abroad upon graduation.

Ali Shamas, 21, studies biochemistry at Lebanese University. As with many of his peers, he plans on applying to graduate school in Europe. Asked whether he sees a future for himself in Lebanon, the young man quickly replied, “definitely not.”

He explains that in the field of protein science, in which he specializes, he cannot advance very far in Lebanon.

“We are taught the theory, but the real work is on the machines, and we don’t have them here. There is no way I can work in Lebanon.

“I have seen many examples of people who have gone so far in their academic area, and now they don’t use any of the tools they were given. Here, you are given tools to research and develop yourself, but you don’t use them. Lebanon is an ambition killer,” he continues.

The dearth of employment opportunities in Lebanon, however, extends far beyond the fields of science and fashion photography. At present, unemployment hovers around 10 percent. The rate of emigration is high; between 1990 and 2000, more than 250,000 people left Lebanon for work purposes. Emigrants also represent a vital source of income; foreign remittances total about $5.6 billion each year, one fifth of Lebanon’s economy.

For generations, Lebanon reigned as the Middle East’s trade and economic hub. But when civil war erupted in 1975, Lebanon began its slide toward economic ruin.

The war raged for 15 years, claiming between 130,000 and 250,000 civilian lives, wounding a million others (one quarter of the country’s total population) and severely damaging most of the Lebanon’s infrastructure. When it finally ended, the economy was shattered. In the past two decades, the government has incurred the third highest ratio of debt to gross domestic product in the world.

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