BEIRUT: With plenty saved after 10 years in advertising, Ibrahim chose to embark upon the next stage of his career: postgraduate studies in London. His dollars deposited in a local bank, Ibrahim boarded a plane for London in August last year.
With him, he took a cash stipend to see him over, confident in the knowledge that his money was secure in Lebanon and could be transferred to London once he'd settled. "For 30 years we were told that the banks in Lebanon were reliable, that our money was safe," Ibrahim lamented in a phone conversation with The Daily Star.
When Lebanon's banks imposed informal capital controls last October, Ibrahim and thousands like him were cut off from their money as Lebanon's economic shocks torpedoed expatriate students' financial health living abroad, where high rent, tuition fees and living costs, plus the absence of a support network are making life an increasing struggle.
Ibrahim's bank sent him a one-off transfer of $2,500 in March, supposedly due to the exceptional COVID-19 situation, but with it said no more would be transferred. Last month, he tried to use his Lebanese credit card to withdraw a small sum from an ATM in England. He got the money, but the ATM ate his card and when he called his bank in Lebanon asking for a new one to be sent, they refused.
Ibrahim had planned to begin his PhD in September, but without access to his money to pay for it, it's looking unlikely. All the while he has over $30,000 sitting in his Lebanese account. “If I had known in August what would happen, I would have taken all of it when I left.”
For students relying on Lebanese pound accounts to fund their study abroad, the problem is the currency's steep and ongoing devaluation, now reckoned to be over LL8,000 to the dollar on the black market. For Ziad, 18, his ambitions of becoming a dentist cannot withstand the economic impact. “I decided to study in Tbilisi because it was a very cheap option,” Ziad explained to The Daily Star, pointing to total costs of $10,000 yearly all included. That sum would have cost LL15 million, an affordable figure for Ziad's parents. But with the currency's devaluation the cost has risen to LL80 million.
“My parents are telling me I should come back to Lebanon, study business or something other than dentistry,” Ziad said, citing the high cost of studying dentistry in Lebanon. “I don't want to abandon my dream but how will my parents eat if I am still studying in Georgia,” he continued. Ziad has almost completed his second, of what was meant to have been a five-year degree. ”There is no point putting hope in my heart, I will do my finals, but I know I won't go back.”
Paying tuition fees is a major difficulty, with many like Ziad and Ibrahim struggling to do so. But some have managed. Samer, 31 had recently arrived in London when capital controls blocked him off from his dollar savings. Thanks to a tip-off from a friend working at Lebanese bank, he managed to find a loophole, using an official invoice from his university.
But the sum was not enough to cover living costs. Instead of allowing himself $600 a month for living as he had planned, Samer, has found a part-time job bringing him around $200 a month, which in London does not go a long way. As a result, he is not wandering far from his accommodation in south London, nor using public transportation and buying only food. "I'm angry. It's frustrating and depressing. That's my money," he complained.
For Khawla, 25, from Baalbeck, her PhD in France was meant to be funded by a hard-earned scholarship from Lebanon. She had expected to receive the sum of $10,000 from them in January this year and borrowed money on the assumption that she would. But she only received it in June. Nor did she get the expected sum. Instead, she received half the amount, but denominated in Lebanese pound at the official rate. Measured against the current rates on the black market, Khawla received less than a 10th of the scholarship's value.
"We are in a special situation," Khawla argues, whose hijab she believes has hampered her ability to find part-time work. "Allow us to transfer money." Khawla's demand is shared by thousands more and have now assembled into a pressure-group, Lebanese Expatriate Students Bloc.
Speaking to The Daily Star, co-founder Sophie al-Laham explained that the network was setup to bring together a wide number of Lebanese students suffering from the same issues and to pressure figures in Lebanon to alleviate their difficulties.
In May, the bloc sent an open letter to various public authorities including Banque Du Liban and the Finance Ministry, demanding redress and access to dollar savings. Recent government regulations regarding buying dollars from licensed exchanges, included the payment of foreign university fees as a legitimate need for dollars.
Yet the difficulties expat students are facing vary on a case by case basis, and are unlikely to be resolved by any single measure. Karim, from Ghaziyeh, studying in Berlin, places little hope in any government solution. "Personally I think my money is gone. Nothing links me back to Lebanon but my parents. I feel robbed and this issue demonstrates that perfectly."