Lebanon News

The human face of Lebanon’s brain drain

File - University students exit the campus in Beirut. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)

BEIRUT: Lawyer Mohammed Darwish never thought he would join the ranks of the Lebanese diaspora, but when an opportunity to work as a legal consultant in Jeddah presented itself in May, he found himself reconsidering. “Frankly, I had [had] enough from Lebanon,” he said. “All of my siblings live in Dubai and Canada, and I always thought that I would be the last person ever to leave Lebanon, but things weren’t rewarding [for] the hard work I was putting in.

“Economically, Lebanon was going downhill and with all the tension we are living in, it was enough. I had a good opportunity here [Jeddah] so I took it. Sadly, this is how things are going for us. I am finding more Lebanese here than in Lebanon,” he said.

Darwish is not alone.

After proudly working, partying and carrying on with life through a decade of instability, violence and brief periods of peaceful optimism, many young, college-educated Lebanese are feeling increasingly frustrated and trapped in a country with limited professional opportunities, a high cost of living and a deteriorating security situation.

As a result, ambitious Lebanese in their 20s and 30s have fled the country in droves over the past few months and more are now searching for work abroad than in anytime since the aftermath of the 2006 war. Yet the professional and educational options available to young people are even more limited than they were seven years ago.

Elie Fares, author of the Separate State of Mind blog and a senior medical student, always planned to apply to U.S. residency programs upon graduating in 2015 because of the few appealing professional opportunities for new doctors in Lebanon.

It wasn’t until this year, however, that he lost all hope for the future of his country, and he definitively wrote off the possibility of staying.

“We’re in a country that is never going to change,” Fares told the Daily Star. “All you have is armchair activists, because in Lebanon you can’t do much but sit in chair and talk.

“It’s not acceptable to live in a place where salaries are unacceptable, you live in constant fear of civil strife and you know you’re not appreciated professionally,” he added.

“For a while I was one of those people who loved this country and believed living here was awesome, but now I realize I was living in my own version of Lebanese la-la land.”

The majority of the medical students in Fares’ class are in the same boat, he said, with half of them studying German right now so they can apply to residency programs there.

Most of his friends would like to emigrate, he added, but many don’t have the option.

“Those who are staying cannot leave because they don’t have a second nationality or come from a conservative family that doesn’t want them to leave or they have a family practice to join,” he said. “There are a few that want to stay because they love their country, but they are very few.”

It is impossible to quantify the brain drain Lebanon is currently experiencing due to mounting instability and a lack of opportunities, but figures from recruitment agencies indicate the volume of Lebanese college graduates in their 20s and 30s looking to join the diaspora has spiked lately.

Fadi Eid, a managing partner at the Careers ME recruitment agency, said his company was currently receiving applications from at least 50 new job seekers per day and that increasingly most of them were looking for work outside Lebanon.

“It started a few months ago,” Eid said. “Currently almost everybody is considering moving abroad – especially the young generation – to the point that many are exclusively looking for foreign job opportunities.

“We noticed the same phenomenon after 2006 Israeli war on Lebanon.”

Unfortunately, foreign demand for Lebanese talent has dropped considerably since then, according to Eid.

The number of applicants for local vacancies has also dropped, said Tina Kfoury, the owner of recruitment firm Business Lobby. The company has 200,000 job seekers in its database, 60 percent of whom are under 30.

“The proportion of Lebanese living abroad who wanted to come back increased in 2010,” she said. “Now, we have stopped seeing a rush of people residing abroad who want to come back to the country.”

Most of the new information technology businesses that have launched since 2008 are still operating in Lebanon. Although many of their managers work remotely, this is to serve other markets, said Jad Hilal, a community organizer at Coworking +961.

“People joke about leaving and they talk about what a bad environment Lebanon is for startups, but no one has left yet,” Hilal said.

However, he said the situation was scaring people away from the capital.

“Some developers are starting to work from home, because they don’t want to come to Beirut due to the security situation. I’ve called developers in Jbeil and tried to encourage them to come, but they’ve told me, ‘We’re scared to go out of the house.’”

A new Spanish startup joined Coworking +961 and is developing a mobile application.

They had originally planned to join an incubator in the Middle East, Hilal said, but are now trying to find one in Europe instead because they “want to leave the country as soon as possible” due to the instability.

Members of startup accelerator project Seeqnce are staying put but hedging their bets, said founder and CEO Samer Karam.

“No one is interested in leaving, but everyone is trying to set up offices outside the country because of the business environment,” he told The Daily Star. “I just opened an office in London, but I’m not leaving Lebanon. The market is just too small here to put all your eggs in one basket. There just isn’t enough money to be made.”

Raja Oueis is a 25-year-old former community curator at the co-working space AltCity and one of the core members of the hacker space Lamba Labs that opened this year. He is planning to leave in October to pursue a doctorate in robotics at Oxford University.

“I started applying a year ago, way before I got my job at AltCity, when things were a lot better. But you find yourself in a situation now where so many people are leaving and saying, ‘Thank god you’re leaving,’” he said.

“Even my parents are saying, ‘We don’t want you to leave because we’ll miss you, but at least you’ll be safe.’”

Ultimately, two factors were behind his decision to leave: “Not making enough money to save or advance or improve your situation, plus the fact that the security situation is a lot scarier now than it was in the past.”

Over the past month, three staff members of AltCity have either left the country or are in the process of leaving, Oueis said. Lamba Labs was essentially “on hiatus” all summer because so many people were either spending the summer abroad or busy pursuing opportunities elsewhere.

He is the only one of the 10-person core Lamba Labs team currently in Lebanon. Six of them have left either permanently or semipermanently; One went to Carnegie Melon for graduate school, a few went to work in other Arab countries, and a couple went to China to launch a startup, Oueis said.

“A lot of people are applying to universities for master’s and things like that because it is an excuse to leave,” he said. “A lot of people from Lamba Labs are taking IT jobs in the Gulf and Saudi [Arabia] because its hard to find a place to live [here].”

“It’s a direct result of the conflict in Syria because rents have risen and you have to live far from your work and get a car. ... It becomes too expensive.”

Oueis isn’t sure whether he will work in Lebanon after Oxford.

“If it stays the same or gets worse, I don’t know if I’d come back. It’s a tough question,” he said, without offering a conclusion. “There are still a lot of people in my circle who are saying, ‘I’m not going to let these bombings get to us. I’m not going to let them win. I’m going to keep working on my app.’

“But outside my circle, I can’t say that a lot of people feel that way.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 17, 2013, on page 4.




Your feedback is important to us!

We invite all our readers to share with us their views and comments about this article.

Disclaimer: Comments submitted by third parties on this site are the sole responsibility of the individual(s) whose content is submitted. The Daily Star accepts no responsibility for the content of comment(s), including, without limitation, any error, omission or inaccuracy therein. Please note that your email address will NOT appear on the site.

Alert: If you are facing problems with posting comments, please note that you must verify your email with Disqus prior to posting a comment. follow this link to make sure your account meets the requirements. (http://bit.ly/vDisqus)

comments powered by Disqus



Interested in knowing more about this story?

Click here