Beirut, Lebanon (CNN) — Khadija Khreiss has the equivalent of 35 cents in her wallet today. Tomorrow, she may have nothing.
Four streets away, Ahmad Chibly is penniless. Behind him a Ferris wheel, its once gaudy paint now faded, stands tall against Beirut’s Mediterranean coastline.
It is a hot, spring day during Ramadan, when practicing Muslims abstain from food and drink for roughly 15 hours. It’s considered a time of spiritual cleansing and reflection, and gives participants a fleeting glimpse into a life of hunger.
For Khadija and Ahmad, fasting is a simple feat. Putting together an Iftar – the sunset meal that breaks the fast – is not.
“People don’t help each other anymore,” said 22-year-old Ahmad, sitting on a ledge near a tiny fenced park in the Ras Beirut neighborhood.
“In the end, we’ve been reduced to this,” he adds as he gestures to an 11-year-old child rummaging through garbage, his tiny legs sticking out of the dumpster.
Normally, Khadija and Ahmad’s families would look forward to a four-course home-cooked Iftar, while outside, the streets would be festooned with colored lights to celebrate the holy month.
But for many in Lebanon, this year’s Ramadan has a different flavor: One made bitter by an economic depression which has spiraled since late 2019, turning a country that once had the highest GDP per capita in the non-oil producing Arab world into a hotbed of food insecurity.
Because of the financial meltdown, more than 50% of Lebanon’s nearly 7 million people likely live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank. In excess of 1.5 million are in extreme poverty.
For hundreds of thousands of Muslim households, that means that the Iftar is a stripped-down affair – with families who have come together to eat leaving hungry. Many of those following Islamic precepts of increased almsgiving – charitable donations – during the holy month allot a portion of their food to the poor, something even more Muslims in Lebanon have come to rely on this year.
That charitable assistance is what sustains Khadija’s family of five. She has not cooked them a meal in two weeks, instead relying on leftovers given to her by neighbors.
“Before, we could buy oil, medicine, yoghurt, meat, chicken and milk for my kids and have something left over,” said the 42-year-old woman, originally from the south Lebanese village of Khiam but now living in the capital Beirut. Her almond eyes sparkle despite the gravity of her situation. Her ever-present smile accentuates her high cheekbones, but reveals missing teeth.
“Now, we can barely afford anything.”
For tonight’s Iftar, Khadija’s donated food consists of a plate of rice, some lentil soup, the lentil-based Lebanese dish hurak osba’o, and a kebab sandwich which Khadija and Ali took two bites from the night before.
Deciding to add a vegetable to the menu, she empties Ali’s wallet of its 4,000 Lebanese Lira – the equivalent of 35 US cents – her cackle bouncing off the building’s walls as she shuffles out the door. “If I don’t laugh, I can’t survive,” she said.
She returns with just under a kilo of potatoes.
Her husband Ali — tattooed and sporting a man-bun — is a doorman in a decrepit building near the American University of Beirut (AUB). He earned the equivalent of around $300 a month prior to the crisis – enough for the family to get by. This time last year, as the currency began to plummet, that salary dropped to $70 a month. Today it is $37 — just over $1 a day.
“I couldn’t feed (my baby) yesterday,” Khadija said. Her five-month-old daughter, Lamees, sits on a baby chair between Khadija’s legs. She’s blended together a week-old zucchini, a carrot and some potato, and pretends that spoonfuls of the puree are airplanes whizzing into her baby’s mouth.
“It’s ok though. I’d prefer for my kids to get used to not having (food) than having it,” Khadija said. “Well, who knows, maybe things will get better in Lebanon. Probably not in our lifetimes though.”
In just a year, the price of food here has soared by up to 350%, according to AUB’s Crisis Observatory group, a team put together to track the repercussions of Lebanon’s financial crisis.
The price rise, observers say, appears relentless.
The Crisis Observatory also reports that within the first week of Ramadan this year alone, the cost of a five-person household’s typical Iftar – dates, lentil soup, fattoush salad, rice with chicken and yoghurt — increased by 23.4%.
“Some days, the neighbors can’t donate much of their food, and we have to make do with just French fries for Iftar,” Khadija said. “Al-Hamdullilah (thank God). We continue to say al-Hamdullilah.”
‘We eat and drink from the garbage’
Khadija considers herself lucky. Others in Lebanon have to make do without the safety nets her family relies on. One of those is Ahmad, a Syrian refugee who has been selling scrap from trash cans since his father died five years ago.
His back slightly hunched and his face largely hidden under a Dallas Cowboys cap, Ahmad has been parsing through garbage since dawn. Flanked by two younger cousins, he treks across the city hauling a large bag of collected trash.
Prior to Lebanon’s financial crisis, he would sell the recyclable materials for the equivalent of around $30 a day. It was enough to pay the rent on his tiny apartment in a southern Beirut slum, and to buy groceries for his wife, mother and two children. But now his income barely covers his rent. For sustenance, he must do what he had long feared — feed his children from the city’s dumpsters.
A man emerges from his shop in the Ras Beirut neighborhood to shout abuse at Ahmad as he rifles through the trash. Ahmad and other dumpster divers say they’ve grown accustomed to being bullied by people on the street. Squinting from behind his medical mask, Ahmad steps away from the dumpster he was searching and moves on to the next.
“Without this trash we will die of starvation,” Ahmad said, his blackened hands gripping the edges of the putrid dumpster. “Because of the rise in prices, we eat and drink from the garbage. There are so many people like me.”
“We do what we do so that we don’t have to beg.”
Lebanon’s new poor
As millions of people in Lebanon join the ranks of the poor and the extremely poor, they are contending not just with economic insecurity, but also with shame. The devastation of the country’s economic depression is playing out largely in secret.
Some who, not long ago, were considered comfortably middle class, now furtively beg for money from a passerby they recognize from a gym or a yoga class in their old life, before the crisis.
A man driving a Mercedes Benz breaks into tears as he asks a pedestrian to pay for his heart medication. His wife in the passenger seat winces, covering her face in her hands as she looks out the window.
A middle-aged man in a well-worn white dress shirt scoops up expired raw chicken breasts from a trash can. When a passerby offers him cash, his face takes on a pained expression. “No, uncle. I’m only looking for food for the stray cats,” he says.
Another young man, who asks not to be named, shows CNN how he finds food from a dumpster to feed his wife and his young daughter.
“I’ll take off the outer layer of this roll of lettuce and take the middle part, clean it and take it home,” he says as he sifts through a trash bag just thrown out by a worker from a nearby vegetable store. “This lemon is good. I can peel the skin later … This orange is rotten. It could poison us.”
The young man used to work as a waiter until the pandemic exacerbated Lebanon’s economic crisis, forcing the restaurant he worked at to close.
A paltry Iftar
Ahmad picks up a box of atayef — Middle Eastern pancakes — from beneath a mound of garbage. “These are nice and clean,” he says, his face betraying a mixture of happiness and self-pity as he leafs through the Arabic dessert he plans to serve at today’s Iftar. “This will be our food at home tonight.”
His 11-year-old cousin, Ali, is all but submerged inside a dumpster, emptying trash bags and going through them in swift motions. He resurfaces carrying two half-full Pepsi bottles, and tucks them into a food bag that he’s packed for his parents and two younger siblings.
“In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate,” Khadija said, before taking her first spoonful of lentil soup. Outside, the Maghrib (sunset) call to prayer has just rung out, interspersed with the clinking of cutlery from people’s homes.
Her husband Ali appears emaciated, but eats only the fried potatoes Khadija has cooked. “The problem is, I hate eating anything other than my wife’s cooking,” he said. “And we haven’t been able to afford groceries in 15 days.”
Khadija nudges him. “Yes, and before that I hadn’t cooked in a year,” she says, as one of Lebanon’s popular Ramadan TV shows flashes in the background.
“We’ve always struggled with money. We even lived in a much worse apartment before this … but we’d never had trouble feeding our kids.”