53% isn’t a number that should mean much for people. Children with basic math knowledge would tell you it represents a majority, the bigger portion in a division. In Lebanese terms, this number represents the portion of people who live in poverty in North Lebanon according to a 2006 study carried out by various outlets, including the UNDP. Common sense would say that this number hasn’t improved since then.
18% may look like a more appealing number than the aforementioned one but in reality it represents the proportion of people in the North who live in extreme poverty, that is with less than $4 per day. In other words, the money you use every morning to buy your morning Starbucks kick-me-up is more than some entire families use for a day. Don’t worry, though, I’m not asking you to alter your caffeine routines or to change into an altruistic being who brands socialism and equality wherever he goes.
The good news, if there’s any, is that North Lebanon is where most poverty in the country lies. The numbers are minimal in Beirut and increase as you go towards the periphery. When it comes to the North, the majority of people who live in poverty reside in the infamous Bab el Tebbane neighborhood in Tripoli as well as the Akkar district. Poverty rates in Akkar are at 63% with 23% in extreme poverty.
Akkar is in the news today as the district from which 70 Lebanese are missing, with 27 reportedly dead, due to the sinking of a boat for illegal immigrants in Indonesian waters as it headed to Australia. All of those victims are from the town of Baqaa’it, from which 270 people have left in the past year in similar ways. But can you really blame them for wanting to leave? Can you really blame them for preferring to risk their lives and the lives of their children in the hopes of a better life rather than to stay over here ?
The Lebanese state exists only in Akkar in the form of the taxes those people pay whenever they can while expecting absolutely no development from the state. The area is forgotten by both government and private sector alike. This is the current policy that runs the country: any region that isn’t Beirut or some parts of Mount Lebanon doesn’t get a second glance. Akkar is among the parts of Lebanon that have it worst. Towns in a region in Akkar called Jerd el Qaryeh received electricity for the first time ever last week. You did not misread that sentence. They celebrated with fireworks as that mysterious bulb in their ceiling lit up for the first time in their lives. This is 2013. The situation is worse for roads, schools, hospitals, sewers, etc.
The main form of sustenance that those people have is agriculture. As you know, agriculture in Lebanon is as fragile as our security apparatus. Any change in weather that’s out of season is enough to spoil crops and cause immense losses to the farmers. The state couldn’t care less: it doesn’t support the farmers to begin with, let alone provide means to counter such losses. But another entity has been plaguing the life of Akkar’s farmers and the many workers there whose main source of bread was the land which they worked tirelessly. Syrian refugees who are flocking into the country through their region are taking away their jobs at much lower prices and can be made to work in conditions that a Lebanese worker would never accept.
As such, unemployment rates in Akkar – which were already higher than the national average – have been skyrocketing lately, mirroring the growing trend in the country as a whole. Those people, being massively under-educated compared to their Lebanese counterparts outside their region, have no other options available to them for work. They can’t compete with other Lebanese, and lately Syrians as well, for better paying jobs outside of Akkar. The Lebanese University, for instance, has no functional branch in Akkar. The branch that actually exists is extremely small and located in a high school building in Halba. Many villages lack schools. The schools that do exist are not up to par. Trying to leave Akkar in order to get an education in Tripoli or Beirut is not feasible for many due to it being costly, even if the education part was to be free.
Leaving itself is becoming much harder for the people in Akkar lately. With the war raging in Syria next door, the people there spent many sleepless nights listening in to the fights taking place next door. When Tripoli decides to have its share of fun, they would listen in as well. Either way, they were stuck in their towns and homes, unable to move to get their necessities, feeling unsafe all the time especially as the security situation in the district itself was also deteriorating in recent times.
It is said that we elect MPs in order for them to represent our woes and make our life easier, innocent as that sounds given Lebanon’s political context. This requirement becomes an absolute necessity in regions that are as needy as Akkar. The region’s MPs, however, who are now on their 5th year of term after they renewed for themselves, have done next to nothing to help their region. Khaled el Daher was obviously busier in calling for revolts against the army, while issuing defamatory statements against anyone who doesn’t support his rebels. Hady Hobeich was busier in his hometown’s municipal elections. The MPs win because their respective political party works on keeping people needy for years then feeds them just before they go cast their ballot. The status quo is perpetuated. The local “zou’amas” are kept. You can’t blame the people for not breaking the hand that feeds them. They remain poor. It’s similar to what takes place in Tripoli at every election cycle.
On my first visit to Akkar, during which I was admittedly just passing by, I was pleasantly surprised by the wide agricultural plains, the beautiful scenery and the immensely long laundry lines that stretched from one dismal-looking concrete house to the next as people I would have never thought shared my country roamed the fields in which they lived. While our officials try to break traveling records, the people they are supposed to serve are dying on boats in foreign waters while seeking a better life, one that my country cannot and will not provide for them because it’s not on our government’s agenda. The discussion currently taking place is about the tragedy that those people’s death is, and tragic it is. But the real tragedy is with all the reasons that have forced those people to leave and those reasons will never be discussed. I would personally take the first boat out of there if I had been in their shoes. Would you?