As poverty deepens, Lebanon protesters step in to help

Lebanese protesters and volunteers with carts of donation food in Sidon. (AFP)
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Updated 27 December 2019

As poverty deepens, Lebanon protesters step in to help

  • World Bank warned that poverty rates may increase to include half the population
  • Some charity kitchens serve 100 people a day

SIDON, Lebanon: With volunteer kitchens, makeshift clinics and donation centers, Lebanon’s protesters are helping their compatriots survive the worst economic crisis since the civil war by offering services many can no longer afford.
“Our goal is to create a state of social solidary among all segments of society,” said Wael Kasab, a volunteer at an open-air kitchen in the southern city of Sidon.
Across the country, protest encampments are bustling with volunteers trying to fill in for an absent state and cash-strapped charities that have closed their doors or reduced their activities in recent months due to deteriorating economic conditions.
Their efforts come amid warnings by the World Bank of an impending recession that may see the proportion of people living in poverty climb from a third to half the population.
In Sidon’s main protest camp, volunteers scoop rice and stew onto plastic plates.
They register names of people in need of medical care to refer them to a clinic for free treatment.
Under a plastic tent, Zeinab Najem arranges clothes on a metal rack as a group of women peruse a collection of thick winter jackets.

Najem said she first started the donation center with only 10 items of clothing, but now her tent “looks like a store.”
“There are many people in need,” she told AFP.
A few meters away from Sidon’s protest camp, charity groups have set up a kitchen that serves free meals to around 100 people per day.
Sitting at a plastic table in the restaurant, Abu Ahmad eyes a tin tray filled with stuffed courgettes, salad and rice.
“I cannot afford to buy my own food,” said the 83-year-old. “I will be full today... but I’m scared of the coming days.”
Lebanon, rocked by two months of anti-government protests and a political deadlock, faces its worst economic crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.
A liquidity crunch has pushed Lebanese banks to impose capital controls on US dollar accounts, capping withdrawals at around $1,000 a month.
As a result, the value of the Lebanese pound against the dollar has dropped by around 30 percent on the unofficial market, leading prices to rise.
The faltering economy has also pushed many companies into bankruptcy, while others have laid off staff and slashed salaries.
In the northern city of Tripoli, where more than 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, the effects of the crisis are stark.
The volunteer kitchen in the main protest camp there serves around 2,500 meals a day to long queues of hungry people flocking from all corners of the country’s second city.
Stores near the encampment are empty of clients, while shop owners sit idly outside.
To help small businesses survive the crisis, a group of volunteers collected around $4,500 (based on the official exchange rate) in donations.
They used the money to buy 130 food baskets consisting of rice, sugar, lentils, flour and oil, said Sara Al-Sharif, who started the project.
The food was purchased from around 30 stores in Tripoli’s poorest district to help boost business, she said.
Had it not been for that initiative, grocery store owner Damal Saqr, 50, said he would have closed shop.
“I was on the verge of closing down... because of inflation and the (de facto) devaluation of the Lebanese pound.”
He said that his daily earnings do not exceed $12, barely enough to cover the $500 he needs every month to cover rent for his home and store.
“I can’t afford to buy goods for the store anymore,” he said.
In Beirut’s main protest camp, volunteers dressed in neon-yellow vests pack the back of a truck with piles of donated food.
Near the main central bank building in the capital, cardboard boxes and rubbish bags filled with donations line the sidewalk.
Protesters there chant against the ruling class as they distribute clothes, blankets and mattresses to the needy.
“It is our national duty to mobilize and help each other,” said Sarah Assi, a volunteer.
“We have no other solution.”


Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

Updated 12 July 2020

Motorhomes come of age as Europe relaxes lockdowns

  • This form of transport means freedom — and health and safety into the bargain

PARIS: After months of working on the frontline in the battle against COVID-19, Spanish nurse Yone Alberich was ready for a holiday, but the question was how.

Going on holiday generally meant flying abroad — but with the virus still very much in the air, she didn’t want to take a plane. 

Nor did Alberich want to stay in a hotel or be around crowds of people. So she and her husband rented a motorhome.

“The idea was to keep away from people to avoid getting infected,” said the 32-year-old, who has a toddler and lives in the Valencian coastal town of Castellon.

“And with COVID, what could be better than traveling around with your house on your back?“

With social distancing the new norm in Europe to avoid any fresh outbreaks, there has been a shift in thinking about holidays, with a recent survey showing 90 percent of Spaniards would remain in Spain rather than traveling abroad. And 83 percent planned to use their own car over public transport.

Fabrizio Muzzati, who runs specialist Spanish travel agency Aquiestoy Caravaning, said that many people who never thought about a motorhome holiday are now considering it.

“At a time when the whole world is very much looking for a sense of security, there are a lot of people who are going to give it a go because of the circumstances.”

And as travel restrictions were eased, motorhome rentals resumed “intensively,” the Spanish mobile home and campervan association ASEICAR said last month, suggesting it may be “key to reviving tourism this summer.”

And it is not just in Spain. “Since the rollback, there’s been a real craze for motorhomes, everywhere,” says Francois Feuillet, president of the European Motorhome Federation. “The motorhome means freedom, savings and being green. Now we can add health and safety and for us, that’s a real boon.”

Across Europe, there has been growing interest in the sector and today there are five million users and two million vehicles in circulation, industry figures show. In Germany, Europe’s main market, more than 10,000 new motorhomes were registered in May, an increase of 32 percent year-on-year, while France added 3,529 new registrations — up nearly 2 percent.

And in Spain, a much smaller market but where interest is growing rapidly, there were 1,208 new vehicles registered in June — up 20 percent on last year, ASEICAR figures show.

There has also been a jump in demand in the rental market.

Yescapa, a peer-to-peer rental platform, registered more than 32,500 bookings across Europe in June, with requests for July and August 60 percent higher than in the same period last year.

Of that number, just under a third — or 9,435 — were in Spain.Despite the reopening of Europe’s borders on June 15, most people are reluctant to go abroad, Yescapa co-founder Benoit Panel said.

“Since COVID, there have been almost no cross-booking rentals,” he said, referring to travelers booking outside their country of origin, who usually constitute 20 percent of reservations.

First-time renter Jose Pascal Guiral, who runs a ceramics export business and always holidays abroad, took a motorhome as soon as lockdown ended, spending a week touring scenic mountain passes in the Spanish Pyrenees.

“It’s so much nicer than going in a plane or a hotel, it gives you a real sense of freedom. You go for a week and you feel like you’ve been on holiday for a month,” he said.

Julio Barrenengoa Gomez, director of Caravanas Holidays, said that the crisis has increased interest in national tourism.

“People tend to want a motorhome to travel around Europe but this year, they’re looking to stay here in Spain. With all our desire to visit Europe, it seems like we’ve forgotten just how beautiful Spain is. This year is going to boost national tourism.”

Others believe the health crisis will accelerate a shift away from the mass tourism of resorts, cruises and package holidays.

“This pandemic will change people’s habits because they’ll be less likely to stay in crowded places,” said Fernando Ortiz, director of established Spanish motorhome brand Benimar.

“Not necessarily because of the risk — they will find a vaccine — but because people like being able to change their plans from moment to moment while traveling,” he said. “And that is likely to last.”