[Published here November 2021]
TRIPOLI, Nov 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – After patiently waiting in line, Umm Mustafa extended two grubby plastic containers to a soup kitchen volunteer, who ladled in rice and stewed greens. It would be the only meal the unemployed single mother and her three sons would eat that day.
“I’m already broke and in debt. So for the last year, I’ve come here every day just to get enough to eat,” said the 40-year-old, gesturing to the outdoor soup kitchen in Mina, a coastal strip along the northwestern edges of Lebanon’s poorest city, Tripoli.
Wearing a second-hand medical mask secured with one handle – torn – she asked that her nickname, “Mustafa’s mother”, be used instead of her full name.
“Mina used to be so beautiful. Now this poverty and unemployment has ripped it apart,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Last week, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on poverty Olivier de Schutter visited Tripoli as part of a fact-finding mission to Lebanon, whose economic meltdown was ranked by the World Bank has one of the worst since the industrial revolution.
De Schutter had previously served as special rapporteur on the right to food, and the Lebanon trip was only his second on the job after he investigated poverty in Europe.
Once hailed as the country’s industrial powerhouse, Tripoli has been reduced to the most impoverished city along the entire Mediterranean coast – even before the current crisis set in, according to UN Habitat.
De Schutter told the Thomson Reuters Foundation he heard “moving” testimony during his day-trip – and feared the city’s decline could be the canary in Lebanon’s coalmine.
“This city is a concise statement of Lebanon as a whole – an attempt to stitch the scars of the civil war and to live in harmonious relationships across communities despite the economic crisis,” de Schutter said.
“I’m watching the impacts the crisis is having on these intercommunal relationships – and Tripoli is a place that should be watched very carefully.”
‘HOW MANY MORE?’
Few can trace Tripoli’s decline as closely as Robert Ayoub, who founded the Maeddat al-Mahhabe soup kitchen that served as de Schutter’s first stop in the northern city.
In 2018, Ayoub ran into a former work mate from Tripoli’s Port Authority, overshadowed by a fast-expanding port in Beirut.
The city’s oil refinery had also stopped functioning, as had the rail line linking it north to Syria and south to the rest of Lebanon. An influx of Syrian refugees fleeing conflict next door meant competition for low-skilled jobs.
By the time Ayoub ran into his old colleague, Tripoli’s urban poverty rate sat at 58%, according to UN Habitat, meaning every other resident lived below the poverty line.
“His life had been turned upside down, and he was picking through trash to find recyclable scraps to sell,” said Ayoub, who immediately opened Maedat al-Mahhabe to serve about 45 free meals a day, mostly to ex-colleagues turned scrap collectors.
Even before the crisis, less than three-quarters of Tripoli households ate three meals a day, according to the Food & Agricultural Organization – the lowest rate across Lebanon.
Food insecurity has only been aggravated by Lebanon’s economic crisis, which has seen the lira lose more than 90% of its value and food prices skyrocket by more than 600%, according to the World Food Programme.
Maedat al-Mahhabe now distributes 700 meals, a service the U.N. called “the ultimate safety net against food poverty.”
Yet Ayoub isn’t sure how much longer he can hold out and fears the queue for free food will only lengthen.
The kitchen relies on donations, and Ayoub says his diners are selling off their last goods – from empty gas cylinders to washing machines to carpets – to afford electricity or water.
“What do these people do four or five months down the line? Their wedding rings and two pieces of gold jewelry were already sold a long time ago. How many more numbers will we be able to host in these coming months?” he said.
Just a few hundred meters away lies Hay al-Tanak, a shanty town where many residents compete for scraps to earn a living.
The state grid provides just two hours power a day, so “privileged” residents paid for a private generator to get enough power to also fire up a television or a few lamps.
“I can’t afford a generator to make up the difference,” said Ahmed Ayyash, a 30-year-old resident who lives in a one-room shack with his wife and toddler.
Ayyash searches for scraps along the coast from 4am until 1pm, then again from 9pm until 2am, earning about 50,000 Lebanese pounds a day – the equivalent of $2.40. The tide brings in anything from plastic bottles to sheets of wood.
Slums are scattered across Tripoli, offering sub-par housing to the most vulnerable in Hay al-Tanak, Mankoubin and Wadi al-Nahle – all visited by de Schutter.
He passed residents sitting in the dark in one-room shacks.
Stained mattresses were propped upright to dry after a rainy weekend – and this was before Lebanon’s wet winter descends.
In its 2017 report, UN Habitat said the need for social housing was “nowhere greater nationally than in Tripoli’s urban area” – but the neighborhoods have seen little to no investment.
Yet some of Lebanon’s ultra-rich also come from Tripoli.
Forbes’ 2021 rich list includes six billionaires from Lebanon. The top two – Prime Minister Najib Mikati and his brother, Taha Mikati – hail from Tripoli and own properties in Mina, near the soup kitchen and Hay al-Tanak.
After Lebanon’s civil war, investments poured into Beirut and its suburbs – but the “peripheral” northern regions were left out, explained Adib Nehme, a local expert on poverty and development who spent more than a decade at the U.N.
“This is not a city with poor pockets like Beirut – this is a poor city with wealth pockets,” said Nehme.
Tripoli was particularly vulnerable to the devastation wrought by Lebanon’s financial crisis, said Khalid Abu Ismail, who heads the economic development and poverty department at the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.
“The story that you see across the rest of the country has been magnified in Tripoli,” he said.
Few Tripolitans have faith in the future.
When de Schutter told a group of men and women he would carry their concerns to the government, many visibly scoffed.
“How about you just take us with you when you leave?” one called out.