BEIRUT: With the Lebanese pound driving up inflation and prices of some consumer goods rising by 300 percent, this year’s Ramadan has transitioned from celebration into desperation.
“Children in previous years used to be happy if we gave them a gift, but now, they are happy if we give them a meal,” a social worker told Arab News.
As the sun starts to set each day during the holy month, people queue outside charity centers or mosques in Beirut to wait for volunteers to distribute hot iftar meals.
Young men carry bottles of homemade juice, jallab, and lemonade on wooden boards to sell on the streets to fasting people. The young men work to support their families or to just cover their basic daily expenses.
Iftar feasts have disappeared from spacious halls due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic for a second straight year. But this year, the financial sting is worse as thousands can no longer provide food for their families.
The poverty rate, according to World Bank estimates, is at 60 percent of the population. Of that, 22 percent are below the extreme poverty line compared to only 8 percent in previous years, according to the Lebanese Ministry of Social Affairs.
Arab News reported last week how Lebanon’s economic collapse means many have been unable to afford traditional Ramadan meals. A shortage of dollars has sent the value of the Lebanese currency into free fall on the black market and forced families to scramble for basic necessities.
“People need help,” Karina Naccache, coordinator of the volunteer unit at the Makassed Islamic Charitable Society in Beirut, told Arab News.
“We are providing Ramadan meals that include meat and chicken, but I fear that by the end of the month, these families will no longer be able to receive meat.”
She spoke as a group of young volunteers distributed hot meals to needy people outside the Ward Al-Makassed Center in Beirut’s Tariq Al-Jadida neighborhood.
Naccache said her group serves 1,000 iftar meals every day to about 300 families that come from Beirut and its surrounding suburbs.
“Often these needy families are elderly, have no family, or have lost a breadwinner,” she said. “But what is different this year is that there are young families who have become needy and they come to us shyly. We have been given instructions on how to safeguard the dignity of these people.”
We are providing Ramadan meals that include meat and chicken, but I fear that by the end of the month, these families will no longer be able to receive meat.
Even before the Beirut Port explosion in August last year, the unemployment rate among Lebanon’s workforce of 1.8 million was at 30 percent. The job climate is much worse now.
“People are very affected by this economic crisis,” said a 24-year-old volunteer, Yasser, who is a university graduate and has volunteered since 2010.
“There are many families who are shy and would not ask for a meal. Last year, we used to go to people’s homes, but because of the pandemic, they are now coming to us.”
Taghreed Dimassi is a social activist and volunteer for the charity group Balsam Ladies. In previous years, the group members used to cook in her home and prepare meals for needy families.
“Providing a meal is not enough this year,” she said. “The need is massive and so is the cost. Nevertheless, we continue to offer boxes of food every month along with clothing in the winter and summer.”
She added: “Right before Ramadan, we feared that our source of funding would decline. The money usually comes from other women activists and Lebanese people who work abroad. But despite all these circumstances, funding did not stop.”
Faten Mneimneh, an activist at the Irshad and Islah Charity, said: “The data we have about the needy has risen a lot this year. The more we search in the neighborhoods, the more we find families who are in need.”
Mneimneh said her organization assists 2,000 beneficiaries while funding comes from Lebanese people at home and abroad.
“A $30 meal in a restaurant outside Lebanon can provide food for one poor family in Lebanon for a whole month,” she said.
Mohammed Anas is not ashamed to stand and sell juice alongside his father in Beirut’s Ras Al-Nabaa neighborhood. He has a biology degree from Lebanese University and tutors younger students but still has not secured a full-time job. He had considered emigrating.
“My father normally works as a taxi driver, but during Ramadan, he sells juice,” said Anas, who makes just enough money selling juice to cover his daily expenses.
“The number of customers has decreased this year. Not many people are willing to pay 20,000 Lebanese pounds for a bottle of juice, as the price for just about everything has doubled.”