NOW Lebanon | 04/05/2022 | Politics Dossier

Lebanon’s youth is leaving the country en masse, risking their lives and selling their possessions. Many are seeking the German dream, despite the various obstacles related to language and obtaining a student visa.

“It could have been us,” said Rabih Hajjo quietly, watching the news. 

Six people had drowned off the coast of Tripoli a few hours earlier. They had tried to reach Cyprus on a boat packed with sixty Lebanese, Palestinians and Syrians, all looking for a better life in foreign lands. 

A navy ship had rammed into them, causing the boat to sink instantly. As Tripoli was reeling with grief and anger, ambulances were zipping through the streets and automatic rifle fire filled the air in protest and mourning. From Mina to Tebbaneh, the shock spread across the “capital of the north” in which many, if not most, inhabitants plan to leave sooner or later.

Indeed, the tragedy on April 24 did not deter other emigrants from attempting the perilous trip a few days later. On April 29, a ship transporting 85 people was caught before it left Qalamoun. Operations against smugglers have increased, with two arrests being made.

“I really understand them, they just tried to reclaim a future somewhere else,” Rabih commented gloomily. 

The 21-year old is also on the verge of departure: a Lebanese Palestinian from Mina, he is eager to start over in Germany as a student. For thousands of students and young workers, Germany is a land full of promises, and Lebanon a country of wasted opportunities. The political and economic system profits from its exiled youth – less unemployment and increased income from the diaspora.

Rabih Hajjo, 21, wants to study international management in Cologne. Photo: Philippe Pernot, NOW.

A crisis

“Three years ago, we could never have imagined arriving at such a low point. I was planning to work in Lebanon and get involved to improve my country – now I have no future here,” said Malda Issa, 28. She lives in Qubbe, a struggling middle-class neighborhood of Tripoli, the Mediterranean country’s second largest – and poorest – city. 

“It feels like someone is holding you down, controlling your every move and thought,” sighs the civil engineering master’s student. A recent study showed that Lebanon’s residents were the unhappiest people on earth, second only to Afghans. 

After the 2019 October uprisings that led to the resignation of the former government, an economic crisis that had long lurked in the shadows deepened. The political situation remained marked by a neoliberal class war led by the country’s elites: in Lebanon, the richest 10 percent own 70 percent of the total wealth. The political class has remained the same since the Civil War, and is constituted of sectarian warlords or businessmen who have shaped the Lebanese state to suit their interests.

The economy crashed and the Lebanese lira lost more than 90 percent of its value. The entire country was thrown into poverty. The youth suffered the most: private schools and universities offering the quality education are now unaffordable for most Lebanese, salaries paid in lira are worth a fraction of what they had been before. 

Unemployment among 17–24-year-olds has also risen as high as 60 percent

“I struggled for three years, constantly hoping for improvement. Now I have accepted that the young people who are leaving the country are not cowards. No – they are reclaiming their future. And that’s what I want too,” Malda declares with determination.

Lost youth

Like thousands of her peers, the young Lebanese woman says she longs for a better life in Germany. The country is attractive because of its strong economy and its universities. “In Lebanon, almost all the engineering jobs are in construction. To the opposite, Germany is famous for its engineering, with a diverse range of specialties,” explains Malda Issa, who has been unable to find a job in her sector in Lebanon. 

Its reputation of having human rights-friendly policies and an openness towards refugees makes Germany a first choice for many marginalized youths. “In Lebanon, racism traps me like a bird in a cage,” Syrian Hussein al-Freij, 31, says. 

“Here, almost all professions are forbidden to me; I could only work as a construction worker, a waiter or a janitor,” he explains. 

His family has worked in Tripoli for more than 40 years. He also has lived there for a decade, and studied law, political science, education and computer science. But all doors remain closed to him because the 1.4 million Syrians who have sought refuge in Lebanon are excluded from the economic system. 

“I’m 31 and I have no job, no family, and no home – my youth is lost, and there is no future for me here,” Hussein laments. 

Considered a deserter, he can no longer return to Syria for safety reasons, and has no desire to do so. 

“I hate the Assad regime more than anything.” 

His dream was to open a guesthouse in Tripoli to teach Arabic to international students. But because he is Syrian, such a plan is impossible. He now survives by teaching Arabic classes online. 

“My only option is to learn German, and then travel to Germany. There I will be able to develop myself, and contribute to society as a teacher, NGO worker, or as a lawyer,” Hussein says. “Germany respects our rights more than Lebanon!” he hopes.

Hussein says he considered leaving through Turkey or Belarus, which recently opened its borders to Syrians as a geopolitical move against the European Union. He has even thought about crossing the sea on a boat similar to the one that sank off the coast of Tripoli. 

Yet, all his options have faced one insurmountable barrier. “I just didn’t do it because it was too expensive, I don’t have the 5,000 dollars right now,” he concedes.

Life and death

The situation in Lebanon is unbearable for many young people and, for some, leaving the country is even a matter of survival. Studies show that up to 90 percent of young Lebanese are affected by post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental illnesses, and that suicide cases have tripled since 2021

Mira Succari, 20, says she knows this all too well: she has suffered from borderline personality disorder for five years. But Lebanon’s health system is barely able to help her: after decades of political strife, the Covid-19 pandemic, and in the midst of crisis, there are no treatments for many conditions, including Mira’s. “I am given medication for bipolar disorder that is not appropriate at all! The side effects are almost stronger than the effect, now I am overweight and have ADHD,” she complains. 

The consequences can be dramatic for youth who find no solace in their society. Two months ago, she says, her best friend committed suicide because she was queer and suffered from episodes of psychosis that were left untreated. 

Mira is also at risk.

“I’ve thought about ending my life twice in the past month. If I have to stay here longer, I will commit suicide,” she says. “In Germany, I would find proper treatment, there is the medication I need. And there I would have a chance to overcome the depression and trauma.”

Hussein al-Freij, 31, is just starting to learn German. He wants to study law, political science, computer science or teaching. Photo: Philippe Pernot, NOW.

Learning German: a privilege?

But the road to the German dream is long and trying.

Students usually need an A2 level of the German language to be able to study in English programs, and a B2 level to be able to continue their studies in German. But this comes at a price. 

Language courses at the German House, a language institute in the southern city of Saida, cost about $200 per level, and up to $700 if university and visa applications are included. These costs are incredibly steep in a country where the average monthly salary is now worth no more than $50-80. 

“My father had to sell all our valuables so I could learn German and apply for university,” says Taha Tartoussi, 25. The mechanical engineer has been unemployed for two years, his family has been thrown into poverty because of the crisis, and now he sees his only hope in Germany.

Last year, he booked A1 and A2 lessons at a language institute in Tripoli, but due to an alleged lack of quality, he decided to continue learning as an independent student. “However, it is not always easy to learn German alone. I don’t have anyone behind me to motivate me. Coupled with the low self-esteem that comes with unemployment, it’s actually really hard,” he says. Between the financial hardship and the day-to-day problems of the crisis, many students are so strained that they are driven to give up.

Mira Succari, 20, wants to learn German at the German Academy in Hanover before moving to Berlin to study photography. Photo: Philippe Pernot, NOW.

Overcoming barriers

To learn German, Rabih Hajjo, 21, was compelled to quit his job as a barista in a café. Like many young and marginalized Lebanese, he started crypto-gaming instead. “In the café I worked 45 hours a week for $70 monthly salary, and had no energy left for German, now I can watch movies, series and Youtube videos to practice my German,” he explains. 

As a Palestinian, he has few other options in Lebanon: 70 professions are forbidden to him and his compatriots, and the others mostly come with low wages and harsh working conditions. “My grandparents were driven out of Palestine as children in 1948, my parents and I were born and raised in Lebanon. We have nothing to do with the war, yet we are punished on a daily basis, which is absurd,” he denounces. 

For thousands of students and young workers, Germany is a land full of promises, and Lebanon a country of wasted opportunities. The political and economic system profits from its exiled youth – it means less unemployment and increased income from the diaspora.

His father, who passed away last year, had moved to Germany in 1983, and half of his family has lived there ever since. But Rabih never got to meet his German relatives because his father never applied for the right to family reunification. 

“Now I finally have the chance, on my own, to fulfill this part of my destiny,” he explains. Thanks to some apps, social media channels, and books from the Goethe Institute that he borrowed from a friend, he was able to get his A2 level “without spending a single dollar.” Now, Rabih is after the B1 to strengthen his resume. However, booking the exam at the Goethe-Institut has been impossible until now. “Every morning I wake up hoping to see the institute’s Facebook post, which I can then use to apply for a place,” he says.

The chaos of the language exams

So far, in vain: as soon as a post appears, all places for the exams are already automatically taken. The problem is shared by Malda and Taha. 

“Throughout the Middle East, it seems impossible to book these tests,” complains Taha, who has been waiting for a spot on a B2 exam for more than 3 months. “When the Goethe posts at 9:00 that places are open for the B1 exam, by 9:05 it’s already too late,” Malda despairs. “This is driving me crazy! I’m slowly losing hope of being able to take my B1 exam in Lebanon,” Rabih rages. He accuses the Goethe-Institut of having made agreements to favor students from certain language schools. 

In a telephone interview, Rima Chafi, director of the German House in Saida, confirms that it is “a cooperation, but not a partnership.” The Goethe-Institut trusts her school “because our students perform very well and always arrive on time for exams,” she insists. Thanks to this partnership, she could send the Goethe-Institut a list of applicants who would then automatically receive their exam places. That’s why other schools are “frustrated,” she says. Rabih denounces this as a “corrupt system” that discriminates against independent – i.e. poorer – students. “The exam seats cost $60 anyway, a month’s salary, without any guarantee of acceptance,” Taha says. 

“But the shortage of exam places is also because students from Iraq, Syria, and all over Lebanon are flocking to Beirut because the Goethe-Institut is the only one in the whole region where they still offer these exams,” Rima Chafi says. 

Malda Issa, 28, will first attend a B2 German course at the University of Bochum before studying engineering for a master’s degree. Photo: Philippe Pernot, NOW.

Harsh treatment

Language exams are not the only challenge young people in Lebanon have to overcome on their way to Germany. 

“The German embassy in Beirut is terrible – after I called them several times to beg for an appointment, they threatened to stop my visa process if I called one more time!” sighs Mira. She waited three months for an appointment, while her borderline personality disorder became increasingly aggravated. “I never dared to mention my disorder because they were so unempathetic with me,” she explains. 

She had long since been accepted at the German Academy in Hanover, but missed her first semester because of the delay at the embassy. She was finally granted an appointment, but but must now wait up to six months  to get her visa. “Until then, my life is on thin ice. I gave up my studies, my love life, my passions in Lebanon, and I’m waiting for Germany to allow myself to live again,” she says. 

Another student, who insisted to remain anonymous to avoid jeopardizing her application, told NOW that her visa interview was an ordeal. 

“It was not an interview, but a police investigation… The interviewer did not believe me, criticized my CV, and then even said that my good looks would not be enough to get my visa!” she recalls. “That was a very violent moment that came close to sexual harassment. I cried for three days afterwards,” she said.

Language school staff confirmed that the German Embassy “treats the students in an inhumane way”. “They are mistreated as asylum seekers. Yet Germany urgently needs foreign students and workers!” criticizes one employee, who also wished to remain anonymous. The German Embassy did not respond to our repeated interview requests.

Taha Tartoussi, 25, was previously accepted at Clausthal University of Technology to study mechanical engineering for a master’s degree. Photo: Philippe Pernot, NOW.

The “land of opportunity”

At the end of the grueling process, there is a glimmer of hope for a better, or at least normal, life – but also the apprehension of a new society. 

“Of course I am afraid of racism”,” Malda says. Rabih was surprised to learn of the existence of neo-Nazis and the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD). “I will have to avoid fascists,” says the young Lebanese-Palestinian. 

One thing is clear for all of the interviewees: they are eager to get to Germany. Malda and Hussein would “of course” like to get involved in aid organizations once they make it there, as translators to help other Arab exiles, for example.

But many young people do not know whether they want to spend their lives in Europe. “Actually, I’ve always wanted to live in the Gulf States, but because of geopolitics it’s downright impossible – but maybe later I’ll move from Germany to Dubai,” Taha explains.

For others, Germany appears as a potential new home. “In Lebanon I am neither Lebanese nor Palestinian, I am excluded from all communities. Maybe it will be different in Germany,” hopes Rabih, who is “fascinated with German culture” and would like to finally meet his family there. 

Hussein shares this hope. Before the civil war in Syria, he had wanted to study law so that he could work in his uncle’s law firm in Aleppo. His uncle moved to Germany a few years ago, so Hussein could pick up where he once started.

“Maybe I will finally be able to resume my future, after more than ten years of war and crisis,” he says. 

Philippe Pernot is a French-German freelance journalist and photographer currently based in Tripoli, Lebanon. He studied political science in France and Germany, and he focuses his work on social movements such as feminism, ecology and anarchism, as well as on minority rights and discrimination. Follow him on Instagram.

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