BEIRUT, October 4 (Reuters) – After spending three decades building a real estate business he inherited from his father, Ralph Khoury now finds himself packing his bags an hour from Beirut to start a new life in a country he does not know. not expecting to visit: Georgia.
“If there was a reason to hope I would come back to that decision in a second, but there isn’t,” said the 44-year-old father of two.
Lebanon’s economic collapse over the past few years has taken its toll on the Lebanese as they grapple with shortages of basic medicines, long queues for fuel and inflationary pressures accompanying a plummet. 90% of the local currency which made daily life difficult.
Many citizens who never intended to leave now feel compelled to embark on a new life elsewhere.
Passport applications to the General Directorate of Security in Lebanon peak at 8,000 per day, well above the agency’s capacity to process 3,500, according to the agency.
Ramzi Ramy, the agency’s communications manager, argues that the massive queues that dramatically increased in August were in part due to a rush of students traveling to study abroad before the start of the academic year.
Many of those leaving the country are dual nationals who already have a second passport or residence elsewhere, he said.
But for the Khoury family and many others, this is not the case.
The Lebanese financial system collapsed in 2019 after decades of corruption and inefficiency, an economic crisis that has since escalated amid political feuds, COVID-19 lockdowns and an explosion in the port of Beirut in August 2020 that killed over 200 people and destroyed large swathes of the city – and was the last straw for many.
Khoury spotted Georgia 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 upon arrival in Georgia where it is relatively easy to open a bank account and set up a business that allows them to obtain residency.
The Khoury brothers are now preparing to leave for Georgia, with the goal of their families joining 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 close this chapter … It is not easy at all and it gives me a big pang in my heart,” said Ralph Khoury.
CEMETERY OF AMBITIONS, DREAMS
Her brother Rony, 49, agreed the decision was not easy but it was better for their children’s future.
“We had reached a point where we had to minimize our losses and start over,” he said.
“Here, unfortunately, it is a cemetery of ambitions and dreams,” he said.
The American University of Beirut (AUB) Crisis Observatory, a center set up to monitor the impact of the economic crisis in Lebanon, said in a recent memo that hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were leaving in a phenomenon which he called a “third exodus”. The first exodus occurred at the beginning of the 20th century when famine and World War I caused mass emigration and the second took place during Lebanon’s civil war from 1975 to 1990.
“During the war, people move to safer places, but now we don’t have a war with weapons anymore, it’s an economic war,” said Ola Sidani, the observatory’s program coordinator.
Sidani said about 300,000 Lebanese migrated during the first wave and 900,000 during the civil war. Figures for this third wave driven by the economic crisis are still being compiled, but signs point to a brain drain.
“A quarter of the country’s commercial sector has closed, at AUB around 100 professors have left,” she said.
Many people leave after suffering huge financial losses as their savings have been withheld in banks that have frozen depositors on their accounts since 2019. The feeling of betrayal associated with this will not be easy to overcome, Sidani said. .
“I think this immigration is irreversible,” she said, noting that Lebanon would have to face the problems of an aging population as those of working age leave while their elders stay in the country.
Tangui Chemali, 28, and his two business partners have closed their two restaurants in Lebanon to open a new one in Batumi, Georgia’s second largest city. His decision to leave is final, he said.
Despite the language barrier, with none of the three speaking Georgian, Chemali says the process of setting up their restaurant was straightforward and he felt settled.
“We have all been faced with the same disappointment in Lebanon,” he said, speaking from Batumi.
“One of my partners had to sell his car before coming here because he could not withdraw the money from the bank which he had saved throughout his working life,” he said.
The hardest part of Chemali’s decision was to leave her sick mother with her father and 10-year-old sister.
But he said he would only come back for the holidays.
“I would go back for a visit, to eat our good food and see my loved ones, but not for good,” he said.
Reporting by Maha El Dahan and Alaa Kanaan; additional reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Susan Fenton
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