Charamand: The struggles of modern-day international Lebanese students

Wahib Charamand, Op-Ed Contributor

Worry, fear, concern. 

These are the words that come to mind when news networks announce higher inflation is expected. The annual inflation rate for the U.S peaked at 7.9% for the 12 months ending in February, a 39-year high for the country. People living their everyday lives usually won’t notice this inflation if their nominal income, which they receive in current dollars, increases as much as prices. However, as an international student from Lebanon, since the end of 2019 I have personally experienced what the World Bank has called one of the most severe economic collapses worldwide since the 1850s.

My life and the lives of about 6.7 million Lebanese people have forever changed since the beginning of this crisis. 

Throughout my adolescent life, I have come to learn that a U.S. dollar is equivalent to about 1,500 Lebanese pounds, or Lebanese liras. The Lebanese pound has been pegged to the dollar since 1997 and stabilized at that rate throughout the years. The Lebanese economy was highly dollarized, meaning the U.S. dollar was widely used in everyday transactions. You could practically buy anything, anywhere, either using Lebanese pounds or U.S. dollars. Even the bank deposits were mostly in foreign currency.

Since the beginning of the crisis in 2019, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90% of its value. Inflation has soared by about 145%. The chaos and disruption of daily lives that accompanied the severe decline in the local currency value have been surreal. 

Feeling the pressures of currency devaluation and losing all trust in the Lebanese economy and its banking system, people rushed to safeguard their lifelong savings. But when they went to withdraw whatever sums of money they could from the banks, they were surprised to find their deposits were no longer accessible. 

Banks had imposed strong limitations on withdrawals of foreign currency to maintain their reserves. The amount of foreign currency withdrawal per month was capped at $3,000 per month. Any additional amount would have to be limited and withdrawn at a value that is much less than its par USD value. 

As such, a new currency was born, named ‘Lollars’ by economists in reference to the dollar deposits available at the Lebanese banks with a much lower value than real dollars. Not only were foreign currency deposits inaccessible to the Lebanese, but more importantly, they had lost most of their real value. They are now worth only 30 cents on the dollar.

The country’s imports have also suffered a severe decline due to the shortage of foreign currency. Some people had to resort to the black market to buy real U.S. dollars, named “fresh dollars,” to pay for their external needs, like student tuition, outside of Lebanon. Other basic needs, like medication, became increasingly scarce. Prices of basic goods, like fuel, rice and sugar, have surged by about 500%.

The high inflation coupled with a strong decline in local salaries caused by the devaluation has had a major impact on the purchasing power. The minimum wage in Lebanon, which was equivalent to about $450 a month in 2019, is now worth less than $30 a month and the poverty rate has increased tremendously. 

Driven by the need to procure a living for their families, most educated people had to flee the country, resulting in one of the worst brain-drain crises the country has ever witnessed. This has further exacerbated the difficulty of living conditions in the country as most qualified doctors, nurses and teachers have left the country. The country that used to be known for its high-level medical and educational services is now struggling to maintain a minimum level of decent education and healthcare. 

Being a Lebanese citizen studying in the U.S. has been quite a challenge for my family. To meet my tuition and living expenses, my parents had to withdraw their monthly allowance from the bank in Lollars to convert it to cash U.S. dollars at 20% of its face value. They then had to go back to the bank and deposit the amount in what is called a “fresh” U.S. dollars account (or a real USD value account) and transfer it to the U.S. to cover my expenses. The hassle of going through this process every month is extremely frustrating and stressful, let alone the fact we are practically incurring an 80% discount on every dollar withdrawn from our bank account. 

Needless to say, this has also put a lot of strain on my spending and has forced me to become much more vigilant and conscious when it comes to managing my finances. That being said, my parents remain grateful for being able to offer me the university life I’ve always dreamed of at Northwestern, and I feel blessed to be among the minority of Lebanese that are still able to pursue their dreams of quality education at one of the best international academic institutions.

Our beloved country, which was once called the “Switzerland of the Middle East” because of its impenetrable banking system, has now turned into a failed state and a failed economy. My people are living one of the worst nightmares in modern human history.

Wahib Charamand is a McCormick freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected] . If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.