Lebanon: How Do The Elderly Make Ends Meet?

Lebanon: How Do The Elderly Make Ends Meet?

Elias has driven the same old grey Mercedes through the streets of Beirut for over 30 years.

Next week, he will get into that taxi for the last time. At 86-years-old, his arthritis has now become so severe that he can no longer operate the pedals. “I was a tailor during the war,” he says, sipping on a steaming cup of tea at a cafe in Beirut’s Al-Tariq al-Jadideh. “The apartment we lived in got hit by shelling during the [1982] Israeli siege of West Beirut. I lost both my wife and daughter.”

He gestures with his head across the street, to what is now a supermarket, and says, “Our building used to be right over there … I was badly injured by shrapnel and had to sell my shop. I couldn’t work standing up anymore. After a while, the money began to run out, so when the war ended my brother gave me his car, and I started working as a taxi driver. It was the only job I could do.”

The fact that Elias has continued to work at such an age says much about the precarious lives of many older Lebanese people. For decades, their plight has largely been hidden. However, the Oct. 17 uprising helped bring the issue to light.

“Now, because of the revolution, these elderly people exist in the eyes of everyone,” says Maya Chams Ibrahimchah, founder and president of the NGO Beit El Baraka.

“We literally witnessed them walking for miles to Riad al-Solh just to eat. As they came out of their isolation and onto the streets, they began to find a voice.”

At 7 percent, the proportion of senior citizens in Lebanon is by far the highest in the region. According to recent projections, over-65s will constitute more than 10 percent of the country’s population by 2025. However, there is no uniform state pension in Lebanon.

While former government and military employees receive small pension payments after retirement and health insurance both before and after they retire, people like Elias, who work in the private sector, lose all such benefits when they stop working – exactly the moment they need them most.

As a result, many older people without savings and family support are forced to work until they are no longer physically able. Those who cannot are forced to spend their latter years in abject poverty, lacking food and adequate shelter. According to Ibrahimchah, while the subject is rarely discussed, suicide rates among older people are on the rise.

Established in 2017, Beit El Baraka provides emergency aid and an array of support services to vulnerable senior citizens and their families. Funded primarily by private donations, the organization works on three levels: a free supermarket from which they can take items they need; a program to restore apartments and help cover housing costs for older tenants; and a scheme that finances medical treatments, such as surgeries and dental care.

“[In Lebanon], we are known for having very close family ties. But, as the economic crisis has deepened, families themselves are finding it more difficult to support elderly relatives because they can’t even support themselves,” Ibrahimchah told The Daily Star.

“We started with 50 families, then that became 200, then 500 and now I can’t even count anymore.”

Ibrahimchah came up with the idea for Beit El Baraka after meeting an old woman living under a bridge in Burj Hammoud. Despite having spent her working life as a French teacher at a prestigious school in Ashrafieh, her end-of-service benefits diminished rapidly.

As the cost of living rose, she struggled to keep up. One day, she came home to find all her belongings outside her apartment.

“I started working with her every day, I took her to a hotel, and we started writing lists of people, researching on the internet about Lebanese law, doing home visits to friends of hers who were in similar situations,” Ibrahimchah says.

“I met one woman who had spent the past five years of her life living in complete darkness with no running water. How come these people, who have worked so hard and contributed to Lebanese society for so long, look like this at the end of their lives?”

On a damp Tuesday morning, a team of employees lifts the shutters to Beit El Baraka’s supermarket in Karm al-Zeitoun. As the shop’s clients begin to walk in, each is greeted with a warm smile. Ibrahimchah is particularly keen to show off the freshly cooked ready meals on offer and the new pyjama sets brought in ready for winter.

“Every person gets a card, on which they write their name and the date. They each get 50 points to spend,” Ibrahimchah explains. With that monthly allowance, clients can pick up anything from groceries to household goods and blankets. “It’s very important they feel like they are buying with dignity and not begging,” Ibrahimchah adds.

“It is a miracle that I am able to use Beit El Baraka,” says Victoria, 67, a former home nurse, after finishing her shopping.

“I became desperate,” she says, holding back tears. “I was so scared. I still am. I’m scared when I start thinking about my future. But the first thing they did when I came in for the first time was hug me. I felt like they were family.”

Victoria has relatives, but says that they are finding it increasingly difficult to support her as the economic crisis worsens. “They are losing more and more of their pay check every day, what are we supposed to do? Poverty is creating a distance between us.”

Boulos lives in a small apartment around the corner from the supermarket. According to Ibrahimchah, Beit El Baraka tries to house as many people as it can in the surrounding area. The 82-year-old explains that he worked as a carpenter for more than 30 years, mostly in Beirut but that he also spent time in Saudi Arabia.

“When my wife died, my whole life changed,” he says. “I don’t have work. I am alone a lot. I used to have friends I played [backgammon] with, but most of them are gone now. I started going to Beit El Baraka one-and-a-half years ago. I had no choice. Who else was going to help me? I have nobody.”

Still, despite the hardships he now faces, Boulos does see a chance for change. “I am too old to go to the protests myself,” he says, “but I hope that things get better after the revolution. The whole government are thieves. They don’t care about us ordinary people.”

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