Lebanese flee crisis for work in Iraq

Iraq, once synonymous with conflict and chaos, is becoming a land of opportunity for Lebanese seeking work and fleeing a deep economic crisis at home.

Akram Johari is one of thousands who fled Lebanon’s falling currency and rising poverty rates.

Last year, he packed his bags and boarded a plane from Beirut to Baghdad, using social media to search for opportunities.

“I didn’t have enough time to look for work in the Gulf,” the 42-year-old said, explaining why he avoided the more traditional path for those seeking economic opportunity in the region.

With its relative proximity and visas on arrival for the Lebanese, the Iraqi capital seemed like a good option.

“I had to take quick action, so I came to Baghdad and started looking for a job on Instagram,” said Johari, speaking at a restaurant he has run for about a month.

Lebanon is grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis that the World Bank says is on a scale usually associated with war.

The Beirut crisis, sparked by years of endemic corruption, has caused Lebanon’s currency to lose more than 90 percent of its value against the dollar.

Lebanon’s 675,000-pound monthly minimum wage now fetches about $30 on the black market, and about 80 percent of the population now lives in poverty, according to the UN.

When he left Beirut, Johari was earning the equivalent of about $100 a month. In Iraq, he earns enough to support his family back home, he said.

– Thousands flock to Iraq –

More than 20,000 Lebanese citizens arrived in Iraq between June 2021 and February 2022, excluding pilgrims visiting the holy Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, according to Iraqi authorities.

Lebanon’s ambassador to Baghdad, Ali Habhab, said the movement from Lebanon to Iraq “has multiplied recently.”

There are more than 900 Lebanese businesses now operating in Iraq, most of them in the restaurant, tourism and health trades, Habhab said.

In particular, there have been “dozens of Lebanese doctors offering their services” in Iraqi hospitals, he said.

Iraq’s decades of conflict, from the 1980s Iran-Iraq war to the 2003 US-led invasion and subsequent sectarian conflict, and to the rise of the Islamic State group in 2014, mean that Baghdad may appear to be an unlikely magnet for those looking to build a new life.

But since the country declared victory over the Islamic State in 2017, Iraq has slowly begun to regain its stability.

Today, the streets of Baghdad that once witnessed atrocities are lined with shops lining main thoroughfares and cafes open late into the night.

According to Iraqi economic expert Ali al-Rawi, many Lebanese companies came to Iraq because “they know the investment environment well”, while many foreign companies from other countries are “afraid to invest” due to their violent past.

“There is a lot of room for Lebanese companies in the Iraqi economy,” he said.

But Iraqis themselves have seen their fair share of economic hardship.

In a country where 90 percent of income comes from oil sales, about a third of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.

In 2019, nationwide protests broke out in Iraq, fueled by anger over rampant corruption, a lack of basic services, and unemployment — similar factors behind protests in Lebanon that erupted around the same time.

– Lebanese businesses flourish –

Lebanon was once a prime destination for medical tourism, as Iraqis flocked to better-equipped medical centers in Beirut and other cities.

But, as with other sectors, Lebanon’s economic crisis has affected health care.

Beirut’s Hospital for Eye and Ear Nose and Throat Specialists was once popular with Iraqi patients, but a hospital official, Michael Cherfan, said “many doctors had left Lebanon.”

The hospital responded to the crisis the way many Lebanese have, opening a branch in Baghdad, saving Iraqis the trip to Beirut.

“Our doctors come on a rotating basis,” Cherfan said. “Every week, one or two doctors come and do consultations and surgeries, earn some money, and then go back to Lebanon, which helps offset some of their losses.”

For Johari, although the money he earns in Iraq supports his family, it has a bitter taste. He flies home once a month, but he misses his family.

“It makes me very sad that I won’t be able to see my two-month-old daughter grow up,” she said.

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