Lebanon’s Assyrians confront severe economic crisis

Urgent meeting prompts action among community leaders

July 2020 | By Yasmeen Altaji

CHICAGO — In late 2019, amid a wave of anti-corruption protests, Lebanon turned witness to what would become its worst economic crisis in modern history.

People in Lebanon are facing the dire impacts of their economy’s drastic decline: rocketing unemployment rates, severe devaluation of the Lebanese pound and a cyclical decline in both food production and consumption. 

Among those facing the consequences are Assyrians who, in some form, call the country home.

On Saturday, the Assyrian Policy Institute (API) held an urgent community-wide meeting to discuss the situation in Lebanon as it relates to Assyrians — both refugees and non-refugees — present in the country. The meeting, moderated by API Director Reine Hanna, featured presentations from Beirut-based Cor-Bishop Yatron Koliana, Acting Head of the Assyrian Church of the East in Lebanon; and Jack Jendo, Board Member of the Assyrian Support Committee

Here is what you missed. 

Crisis impacts range of Assyrians in Lebanon

  • The Assyrian Policy Institute describes refugees as people who move from their country of origin to a “transit country,” where they await eventual repatriation at a “resettlement country,” their final destination. 
  • Refugees can remain in transit countries for an unspecified amount of time, ranging from a few months to several years. According to Hanna, many refugees’ transitional phases in Lebanon have lasted more than five years. 
  • Non-refugees whose families settled in Lebanon after the 1915 genocide today live in communities situated around Beirut. According to Hanna, vulnerable Assyrians in these communities are those who live “just above the poverty line.”
  • Currently, refugees who planned on returning to their home countries either have nothing to return to or are unable due to travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and financial insecurity. Likewise, those who anticipated a prompt transition to their resettlement countries are restricted by pandemic-related travel bans.

Assyrian refugees face unique problems

  • Unlike many refugees, Assyrian refugees in Lebanon don’t seek shelter in refugee camps. According to API, many Assyrians rule out refugee camps, citing fear of discrimination and attacks targeting Christians, a minority within Lebanon’s camp populations.
  • In an effort to avoid such attacks, Assyrian refugees in Lebanon seek other forms of shelter, often renting spaces in private homes in Beirut. Private rentals introduce rent costs which, combined with added costs of food, water, utilities and healthcare, have become unmanageable for many Assyrian refugees.

Money receipt presents obstacles

  • Whereas displaced Assyrians had previously relied on remittances from friends and family abroad, that stability now wavers as a result of increased unemployment across the globe related to the pandemic.
  • Money transfers are also less reliable than they used to be; Jendo explained that the Lebanese Central Bank instituted regulations that require money be exchanged at a lower rate. This means, in many cases, when U.S. dollars are sent inside Lebanon, people are receiving approximately 40% of the value of the initial amount in U.S. dollars that was transferred. According to Jendo, many in Lebanon are unaware of this regulation. “You have to tell everyone — even if you are sending directly to families — that they are getting it at a lower rate,” he said.

Efforts to help are ongoing

  • The Assyrian Support Committee has begun distributing food baskets to needy Assyrian families in Lebanon at 30-35 U.S. dollars per month, per family. Baskets include nonperishable food items as well as sanitation and hygiene materials. 
  • Jendo said the organization is also developing an online fundraising platform set to launch within the month. 

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