BEIRUT (Reuters) – After spending three decades building up a real estate business he inherited from his father, Ralph Khoury now finds himself packing up his home an hour from Beirut to start a new life in a country he little expected to visit: Georgia.
“If there was any reason for hope I would go back on this decision in a second, but there is none,” the 44-year old father of two daughters said.
Lebanon’s economic meltdown over the past few years has taken its toll on Lebanese as they grapple with shortages of basic medicines, hours’ long queues for fuel and inflationary pressures accompanying a 90% slump in the local currency that have made daily life a struggle.
Many citizens who never intended to leave now feel forced to embark on a new life elsewhere.
Passport applications at Lebanon’s General Security Directorate are peaking at 8,000 a day, far above the agency’s capacity to process 3,500, the agency says.
Ramzi Ramy, the agency’s head of communications, maintains that massive queues that swelled noticeably in August were partly due to a rush of students travelling to study abroad ahead of the start of the academic year.
Many of those leaving the country are dual nationals who already posses second passports or residency elsewhere, he said.
But for the Khoury family and many others, that is not the case.
Lebanon’s financial system collapsed in 2019 after decades of corruption and inefficiency, an economic crisis that has since spiralled amid political bickering, COVID-19 lockdowns and a Beirut port blast in August 2020 that killed over 200 people and destroyed large swathes of the city – and was the final straw for many.
Khoury scouted Georgia over this summer with his brother Rony, looking for an emerging economy where he could use his real estate expertise and start a business from scratch.
Lebanese are granted one-year tourist visas on arrival in Georgia where it is relatively easy to open a bank account and set up a business that enables them to be granted residency.
The Khoury brothers are now packing up to leave for Georgia, aiming for their families to join them within a year, a painful decision despite the prospect of a better life.
“Imagine that after 32 years of work and all these experiences you are closing this chapter … It’s not easy at all and it leaves me with a big pang in my heart,” Ralph Khoury said.
CEMETERY OF AMBITIONS, DREAMS
His 49-year old brother Rony agreed the decision wasn’t easy but it was best for their children’s future.
“We had reached a point where we needed to minimize our losses and start over,” he said.
“Here unfortunately it is a cemetery for ambitions and dreams,” he said.
The Crisis Observatory at the American University of Beirut (AUB), a centre set up to track the impact of Lebanon’s economic crisis, said in a recent note that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were leaving in a phenomenon it called a “third exodus”. The first exodus occurred during the early 20th century when famine and World War I caused mass emigration and the second was during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war.
“During war people leave for safer places, but now we don’t have a war with weapons, it is an economic war,” Ola Sidani, programme coordinator for the observatory, said.
Sidani said around 300,000 Lebanese migrated during the first wave and 900,000 during the civil war. Numbers for this third wave driven by economic crisis are still being compiled, but signs point to a brain drain.
“A quarter of the country’s commercial sector has closed down, at AUB around 100 professors have left,” she said.
Many people are leaving after running up huge financial losses as their life savings have been withheld at banks that have frozen depositors out of their accounts since 2019. The feeling of betrayal linked to that will not be easy to overcome, Sidani said.
“I think this immigration is irreversible,” she said, noting that Lebanon was going to have to reckon with the problems of an ageing population as those of working age leave while their elders stay behind.
Twenty-eight-year-old Tangui Chemali and his two business partners have closed their two restaurants in Lebanon to start a new one in Georgia’s second-largest city Batumi. His decision to move away is final, he said.
Despite the language barrier, as none of the three speak Georgian, Chemali says the process of setting up their restaurant was straightforward and that he felt settled.
“All of us faced the same disappointment in Lebanon,” he said, speaking from Batumi.
“One of my partners had to sell his car before coming here as he couldn’t take out the money from the bank which he had saved up through all his working life,” he said.
The most difficult part of Chemali’s decision was leaving his sick mother behind with his father and 10-year old sister.
But he said he would only go back for vacations.
“I would go back for a visit, to eat our good food and see my relatives, but not for good,” he said.
(Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Alaa Kanaan; additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Susan Fenton)