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No bread, no work: Lebanon’s Tripoli faces growing hunger crisis

Soaring food prices leave residents struggling in one of Lebanon's poorest city, home to the country's richest man - who is also prime minister
In August, people queue to buy bread from a Tripoli bakery after the central bank effectively ended subsidies on fuel imports (Reuters)
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Tripoli, Lebanon

“There is no bread, there is no work,” says Ibrahim Katab, speaking in his home on the outskirts of Lebanon’s northernmost city of Tripoli. “It’s very hard.”

He doesn’t blink when five gunshots echo off the buildings a street or two away, followed seconds later by several more. “People don’t have food, don’t have jobs, don’t have gas,” he says. “So if you don’t have these things, you fight.”

Tripoli, the second biggest city in Lebanon, is collapsing under economic crisis, rising crime, and Covid-19. It’s always been one of the poorest cities in the country – even before the current economic meltdown the poverty rate in the city was almost 60 percent. That figure is now likely to be far higher.

'People don’t have food, don’t have jobs, don’t have gas. So if you don’t have these things, you fight'

- Ibrahim Katab, Tripoli resident

Lebanon has been suffering through an economic crisis since 2019, with hyperinflation causing the Lebanese pound to lose around 90 percent of its value, pushing millions into poverty as wages, pensions and savings evaporated.

The price of food has ballooned by over 550 percent since October 2019 and bread lines are a common sight in the city as factories close, unable to function due to a lack of fuel.

In July, the Lebanon Crisis Observatory at the American University in Beirut reported that the cost of food for a family of five for one month is now worth around five times the national monthly minimum wage.

Ibrahim moves slowly, encumbered by a brace. His back was broken in the Beirut port explosion of August 2020. He was with his son, who had been taken ill, in hospital, when the building collapsed around him.

Now he is out of work, and reliant on the support of family, friends, and charity. The 29-year-old worked as an electrician, on a freelance basis, before he was injured. Unable to work, he says he has received no support.

“Nothing,” he says. “Nothing from the government, no help for money or food. It’s hard. It’s very hard.”

A 20-minute drive away, on Tripoli’s seafront neighbourhood of al-Mina, Amal Khalil is measuring some long-lasting milk into a bottle of water, stretching it, to feed her five-year-old son.

It’s not clear where the water is from, but it has a greenish tint. The price of bottled water has, like other essentials, soared over recent months. A 500ml bottle of water has seen its price rise eightfold since the start of the crisis.

Amal moved with her husband to new, crumbling rooms recently, after their old apartment became too expensive to rent.

“Our generator bill was up to 1,000,000 lira a month,” she says. “This for maybe eight hours of electricity. But we only earn about 800,000 a month in total. Then my husband lost his job.”

“So tell me how can we live like this? When does it get better?”

'Ignored and forgotten'

Last month, UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia reported that 82 percent of people living in Lebanon - double the number since 2019 - now live in "multidimensional poverty" meaning that they may lack access to education, healthcare or a stable income.

The Tripoli Charity House is one of hundreds of community-based organisations in the city that have their work cut out as the crisis worsens. Founder Lara Rifai says the situation is "miserable".

“The last six months were maybe the most bad,” she told Middle East Eye. “Families here cannot live without support.”

Tripoli, closed shops
Closed shops in the heart of Tripoli during the height of Covid earlier this year (AFP)

“If you look into people’s eyes, you can see the loss,” she said. “People live like drugged people, hopeless, without solutions.”

Rifai's organisation provides multiple services to the most vulnerable, running health and education programmes as well as cooking free meals and assembling food packages.

'If you look into people’s eyes, you can see the loss'

- Lara Rifai, Tripoli Charity House founder

But her ability to address the scale of problems is getting harder, as donations have decreased. The organisation used to provide around 1,200 meals a week, she said, but now it’s more like 400, even though demand has increased tenfold.

“Tripoli is ignored and forgotten," she says.

As ever, it’s the very young, the very old, and the sick who are the most at risk. Ibtissam Abbas was diagnosed with breast cancer, and lives with her 75-year-old father, who suffers from a chronic condition affecting his ability to breathe. “I can’t secure medication for my condition,” she says. 

She used to work as a cleaner but stopped work due to her illness and now, after treatment, has been unable to find work. Tripoli’s unemployment rate stands at around 60 percent.

As prices soar, Abbas says she and her father are unable to secure basics with their limited income and rely on rations and donations. She has also started growing her own vegetables on a small plot outside her house.

“Most of the foods come from the crops that we grow next to our house, because we are unable to buy," she says. “Sometimes the crop doesn’t succeed due to weather factors, but thank God, to some extent we live.”

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A couple of streets away, the Sawa Mninjah Association says that its waiting list for support has exploded, with more than 1,500 families waiting for access to free meals, a food bank, and seasonal clothing handouts.

Founder Diana Karame says the situation is so bad that children in the city are in danger of malnutrition. “We are already there,” she says. “The situation is getting worse day by day.”

In such an environment, temperatures can run high. “You should leave by six,” says one soldier at a road crossing. The week before last, a man was killed on his balcony by a stray bullet fired during a confrontation.

But everyone is quick to point out that rising violence is not motivated by sectarianism – rather, it’s usually armed robberies, with subsequent attacks motivated by tit-for-tat vengeance.

A political solution?

Thirteen months of political deadlock ended earlier in September when Lebanese President Michel Aoun finally agreed a cabinet formation deal with Prime Minister Najib Mikati after over a month of negotiations.

Lebanon had been managed by a caretaker government since the Beirut port explosion in August 2020, when the then government resigned en masse.

'Nothing, nothing, nothing. No, no, the parliament representatives will do nothing'

- Ibrahim Katab, Tripoli resident

Mikati, who previously served as prime minister in 2005 and again between 2011-14, is from Tripoli, and is one of its MPs. He’s also the richest man in the country, with a net worth estimated at $2.8 billion. 

His new government has pledged to carry out the political reforms needed to unlock international aid – but having experienced years of corrupt, stagnant government, people in Tripoli aren’t convinced.

At the mention of the new prime minister’s name, Ibrahim Katab clicks his tongue and shakes his head, as does his brother, wife, and even his child. “Nothing, nothing, nothing,” he says. “No, no, the parliament representatives will do nothing.”

Members of his family, who have gathered in the sparse living room of his home, nod in agreement. “They will not give us help or support,” says Ibrahim.

As the Lebanese summer draws to a close, and colder months beckon, the situation is set to get worse unless addressed, with even reasonably well-off families potentially having to choose between heating their homes and food this winter.

Pedlar corn Tripoli
A pedlar sells corn cobs along an alley in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood of Tripoli (AFP)

In Tripoli’s historic centre, 17-year-old Mohammad al-Qazi is standing beneath a poster of the new prime minister, staring down on the crowds thronging the souk, where many shops have closed.

Its three years since he was last in school, he says, and now he is unemployed. Thinking about the present, and the future, his voice is bleak. “This is hell, bro,” he says. “We are here living in hell.”