In exodus from Lebanon, the well-off find a new home in Cyprus

PARALIMNI, Cyprus (AP) – Many well-off Lebanese who escaped their country’s economic downfall to new life in neighboring island nation of Cyprus say the transition has been a whirlwind of emotions.

They are grateful that they did not have to turn to smugglers and embark on risky Mediterranean crossings to reach European coasts. But they also feel guilty for leaving family and friends behind to fight Lebanon’s unprecedented crises – a failed economy, political uncertainty and social upheaval.

Feelings are intense for Céline Elbacha, an architect who moved with her family of four to the Mediterranean island nation in August 2020, and Nadine Kalache Maalouf, who arrived with her husband and two children four months ago.

They are among more than 12,000 Lebanese who have left their homeland in the past two years for Cyprus – less than a 50-minute flight from Beirut – to enroll their children in school, start businesses and buy apartments on the island.

“We were lucky to be able to come,” Maalouf said. “We are doing our best here as a Lebanese community to help… our families, our friends back home. So it’s not like we’ve just moved and we’re turning our backs and not looking back.

Thousands of Lebanese, including teachers, doctors and nurses have left the country amid a devastating economic crisis that has plunged two-thirds of the country’s population into poverty since October 2019. This brain drain is occurring. is accelerating after the massive explosion in the Port of Beirut last year, when a stockpile of improperly stored ammonium nitrates exploded, killing at least 216 people and destroying several residential areas.

The exodus is indicative of the state of Lebanon, where not only the poor are looking for a way out, but also a relatively affluent middle class that has lost confidence in the recovering country.

For those who can afford it, Cyprus, a member of the European Union, is an attractive option for its proximity and the facilities it offers, including residency for some level of investment in real estate and business. . As Lebanese banks cracked down on deposits, many sought to open bank accounts in Cyprus or buy apartments in order to free their money.

The island has a history of welcoming Lebanese, first arriving in the 1980s, at the height of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, and again in 2006, when Cyprus served as a base for evacuating them. civilians during the month-long war between Israel and the Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon.

Maalouf, 43, who moved to Cyprus with her husband and two children, said she was pleasantly surprised at the “ease” of the resettlement process. She has yet to find a job but has connected with the tight-knit Lebanese community in Cyprus.

“We were afraid of this step,” she said, but the Cypriot immigration authorities “made it very smooth and very easy”.

Cypriot Interior Ministry spokesman Loizos Michael confirmed to The Associated Press that the government has “streamlined procedures” for Lebanese nationals who wish to immigrate legally, “as part of humanitarian aid” in Liban.

In addition, there are incentives for Lebanese businessmen who wish to move their businesses to Cyprus, Michael said, without elaborating.

Maalouf said his main motivation was to protect his children from Lebanon’s dire economic situation – soaring inflation saw the Lebanese pound lose over 90% of its value in less than two years – and to give them a chance to a better future.

“It’s scary when you’re a parent you’re scared and you’re like, okay I have to save my kids,” Maalouf said.

The transition was easier for Elbacha, 47, and her family. They had bought a holiday home in Cyprus years ago in the town of Paralimni on the east coast of the island and believed they already had a place here.

His eldest daughter, Stéphanie, has been studying at a Parisian university for two years. Her youngest daughter, Morgane, 17, was lucky enough to join the only French-speaking school in Cyprus in Nicosia, the capital.

Elbacha and her husband, also an architect, have started a business in Cyprus and both work. They have a sense of obligation to the country that hosted them, she said.

“We want to feel like we are not illegal in the country,” she said. Cyprus has helped them “in every way, and it’s like we have to give them that back”.

Elbacha is lucky, she says, especially when she remembers how helpless many Lebanese feel in the face of constant bickering and bickering between the political elite. Her home in Beirut suffered minor damage in the port explosion on August 4, 2020, mostly broken glass. None of them were hurt, but some of his friends and relatives fared worse.

Later that month the family moved to Cyprus. The first five months here, she remembers the feelings of guilt, as if she was “betraying my country,” she said.

Maalouf, who has also reunited with her family in Paralimni, does not believe things will get better in Lebanon anytime soon, despite the upcoming general elections. “I’ve been hearing this since I was a teenager. Things will get better. We will see and things will never get better, ”she said.

For its proximity to Lebanon, Cyprus is in many ways ideal for Maalouf and Elbacha. They can easily visit family and friends in Beirut.

“The Cypriot people are very warm and welcoming,” Maalouf said. “We don’t feel like strangers here.”

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