PARIS: As the coronavirus crisis continues, and given a banking sector in Lebanon that is restricting money transfers, many Lebanese students stranded in Europe are pleading with their government to fly them home.
Foreign Minister Nassif Hitti said that anyone wishing to return must first be tested for the virus. However, tests are not readily available in four European countries in which we talked to students and diplomats. The Lebanese government has also touted plans to repatriate 20,000 citizens but this has yet to happen.
Many Lebanese students were stranded by state-imposed lockdowns.
Some want to return home because the restrictions will continue for months and they are financially struggling. Others, however, fear they might contract the virus during the journey and infect their families.
Makarram Marhaba, a third-year student studying literature and journalism at the Sorbonne in France, said she contacted the Lebanese Embassy asking to return home but has not received a decision.
“The staff at the embassy were extremely kind and recorded the information,” she said.
“Then they told me there was no procedure for repatriation and suggested I regularly check the embassy’s pages on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for any official announcements.”
She initially chose to wait in France for the pandemic and quarantine to end.
“I observed that there were quite a few people who were infected as they went through the airport,” she said.
“Therefore I chose not to endanger my family in Lebanon by possibly becoming infected on the trip.
“Now, however, they say that the lockdown could last until June and the exams might be postponed or canceled. In that case I have waited for nothing. If I get a chance to return, I will take it.”
She is also facing the prospect of financial problems if forced to remain in France for months.
“Since the beginning of the crisis, my parents have been unable to make any money transfers, not because of a lack of money but because of the banking restrictions,” said Marhaba, whose brother is also studying in France.
Richard Malha, who is in his second year of study, also chose to remain. His two brothers also live in France “We were encouraged to go home but it was not always possible,” he said.
“The polytechnic has about 40 Lebanese and Franco-Lebanese students.
If the hospitals in Lebanon are overloaded, I will further burden them and that is why it is better for me to stay in France, where I have a job and am paid.
Layal Messara, Researcher
“Whether in Lebanon or in France, we will be confined. In addition, if I return to Lebanon, there is a risk of infecting my parents, who are not young.”
Layal Messara has lived for five years in France, where she teaches pharmacy at the University of Bordeaux and carries out clinical research in hematology.
Her decision not to return to Lebanon was based on a desire to protect her own health and that of her parents.
“If the hospitals in Lebanon are overloaded, I will further burden them and that is why it is better for me to stay in France, where I have a job and am paid,” she said.
Messara chairs the Aquicèdre Association, which helps Lebanese students adjust and integrate.
“I know that a number of students want to go home because they are uncomfortably confined in cramped studios or rooms,” she said.
“They are suffering psychologically. Others are facing financial problems because their parents cannot transfer money from Lebanon due to bank restrictions or because they have lost their jobs.
“There are also students who relied on part-time jobs in France, in cafes and restaurants, and they have lost those jobs. There is a crisis group at the Lebanese Embassy trying to help them.”
Lebanon’s ambassador to France, Rami Adwan, said there are 240,000 Lebanese in France, including 4,800 students. About 1,300 people have applied to return home, including 1,000 students.
“Some are suffering psychologically because of confinement,” he said. “Many are lonely and afraid and don’t have enough food. Others told us that they are facing financial problems and no longer have money. A group ... was formed to contact those who request help.”
Adwan said that the embassy has contacted the Association of Banks in Lebanon requesting that banks allow money to be transferred to students, and asked private individuals for help.
“The Chamber of Commerce has also created an account with the embassy’s blessing,” he added. “I was amazed by the generous donations to the fund, which will allow students to support themselves for two months.”
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada, said that 550 Lebanese students in Britain have asked to return home.
“The requested tests (for the virus) are not available,” said Mortada. “We will see what the government decides.” He added that there is a plan to provide students with financial help in the form of a monthly allowance.
Lebanon’s ambassador to Spain, Hala Keyrouz, said about 400 students remain in the country. Their situation is difficult, she said, given the growing numbers of infected patients.
“About 300 students want to return to Lebanon,” she said. “No (virus) tests are available.”
Roula Nourredine, Lebanon’s ambassador in Switzerland, said that more than 300 Lebanese in the country have asked to return home.