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Lebanon’s brain drain

Marketplace Staff Aug 31, 2006

SCOTT JAGOW: Go to any continent in the world, and you will probably find a Lebanese community there. For the past century, Lebanese have traveled across the world, seeking money, securitya€¦and peace. Now, it’s estimated that 16 million Lebanese live outside Lebanon, a country of just under 4 million people. This latest conflict has prompted even more Lebanese to flee. And as Ben Gilbert reports, that could have major economic consequences for the country as it tries to rebuild.

BEN GILBERT: Even before the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Lebanon had a lot of problems. Political instability was compounded last year by several high-profile assassinations. Corruption is rampant, pay is low and unemployment is high. For 27-year-old Hassan Barwad, the war was the last straw:

HASSAN BARWAD:“Me and my friends were planning to hang out on the beach. Next thing you know, we got missiles and bombs coming in.”

So Barwad bought a one-way ticket to Toronto at Syrian Airlines in Damascus. Like hundreds of thousands of Lebanese, he holds dual citizenship. His family moved to Canada when he was nine, to escape Lebanon’s civil war. He and his family came back five years ago. But now, with Lebanon at the epicenter of the Middle East conflict, Barwad is ready to leave this chaotic region behinda€¦

BARWAD:“I mean, you’ve got the Jews who believe that this is their land, and you’ve got the Muslims saying that “OK, they left their land, now they want it back, that’s not fair. And you’ve got the economists saying that it’s not about religion, it’s about the money. And it’s just so complicated I don’t even want to deal with it anymore. I just don’t want to deal with it.”

Barwad has a degree in graphic design. He has a website. He’s tech saavy. Not to mention, a smart dresser. He’s an artist, he says, and he doesn’t think that will fly in Lebanon. BARWAD:“I don’t think I’m coming back. It’s not because I don’t like it, it’s because of my work.”Economist Kamal Hamdan estimates that as many as 400,000 Lebanese have left in the last six weeks. That’s 8 percent of the country’s population.

KAMAL HAMDAN:“This is major issue. Because, those that went out of Lebanon are in general the upper-middle, are more proportionately represented in upper-middle class, in the professional intelligentsia.”

Hamdan says that businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and thinkers are leaving. In a country with few natural resources, they represent lebanon’s biggest asset. Hamdan says these Lebanese are less beholden to the religious differences and ethnic divisions that have caused tensions in Lebanon. They also represent the class that can help to enrich the country both intellectually and financially.

HAMDAN:“When this migrated population tends to stay outside, it will have very negative impact on the economic prospect of Lebanon.”

MARWAN AMOOR:“I’ve been twice. Since last week I’ve been twice to the Canadian embassy.

Twenty-seven-year-old Marwan Amoor is a salesman at a Radio Shack in Beirut.

AMOOR: I have to go. I have to go in any way because there’s no way to survive here, if the situation will stay like this.”

Amoor works 40 hours and attends 18 hours of class a week. His family is poor. They’re farmers from Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains. Marwan makes $450 a month. And there’s not much hope of making more. Like many Lebanese, the war has only dimmed his economic prospects, and increased his desire to get out.

AMOOR:“Lebanon has always been as a place of war. We have waited till 10 years, we tried to build Lebanon. We had two successful summers. These two successful summers made a lot of money to Lebanon. But today Lebanon is down again.”

Economist Hamdan says the key is to try to stabilize the situation as fast as possible, to keep ambitious and smart, young hardworking people like Amoor and Barwad in the country, and to convince those who left that Lebanon is a country worth coming back to.

HAMDAN: This transitional period will play a big role in the return migration to Lebanon. If things seem to be very complicated . . . or more instability with respect to Israel, to Syria or to internal conflict, I think the pattern of return migration will be very slow.

Hamdan says he has plans to stick around, but he’s happy that his daughter started her studies in Paris shortly before the war began. She joins her two brothers as Lebanese living outside the country. They don’t have plans to return anytime soon.

In Beirut, I’m Ben Gilbert for Marketpalce.

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