Visiting Borrowers in Biet Ed-Deen, Lebanon
When I told my friends and family that I was leaving my job in Washington D.C. to move to Lebanon as a Kiva Fellow, I got the same reaction from everyone: is it safe? Isn’t that near Syria? What's there?
Very few Americans know about Lebanon, and even those who do only know it through the lens of the media: images of war-torn buildings and a refugee crisis too big to handle. So, I will do my best to shed light on my experiences here in hopes that I can tell a story about Lebanon that isn’t told often enough, one of abundant hospitality and resilience.
Lebanon is a small country surrounded by bigger neighbors and recovering from a painful history of two wars, one as recent as 2006. When I say small country, I mean extremely small. I come from Richmond, Virginia, and to put it in perspective, Lebanon is about three-fourths the size of Connecticut, and if you were to place it inside of Virginia, it wouldn’t even take up half the state’s width or length.
The population of Lebanon is about 6 million people (and while exact figures are hard to come by, that's including roughly more than 1 million registered Syrian refugees). You can drive from one side of the country in about four hours if you wanted to (depending on traffic), passing the Mediterranean sea, the Qadisha Valley, and the famous Cedar forests. When I arrived in February, a thirty-minute drive from the crystal blue water to the silver mountains meant one could be swimming in the sea and then skiing in the mountains in the same afternoon.
In many ways, Lebanon’s past and present challenges have given the country and its people a strength that is very apparent in the way the Lebanese approach day-to-day life. Because Lebanon is so small, everyone knows everyone, and I mean that just shy of literally. Its hard to walk somewhere without running into someone you know, even when you leave Beirut. There’s a strong sense of family and community here. Everyone can tell where a person is from and who his or her family is by last last name, down to the specific village and neighborhood. Everyone hears about news through word of mouth. Arguably, this has its upsides and downsides, but when it comes to my work in the field for Kiva, it’s more important that I would have guessed. Visiting Kiva borrowers in the breathtaking Beit Ed-Deen village in the mountains, one of them told Kiva partner Al Majmoua that seeing “the face of Kiva” is extremely helpful in believing that its a trustworthy organization. After we left, the branch officer told me that this borrower would likely go and tell her family and friends about Kiva, in turn establishing a positive reputation for the organization and Al Majmoua amongst the local Beit Ad-Deen community.
For other borrowers, this sense of community is the key to livelihood. A borrower of Kiva partner Ibdaa Microfinance, Nada, runs her own herbal medicine business in the mountains. When I asked Nada how she maintains her business and competes with local pharmacies, she noted that her community supports her and keeps the business alive. Generations of families have been going to her for herbal medicines, despite having the alternative of going elsewhere, and everyone in the community knows that her products produce results. "My community supports me and always will," she told me confidently.
This spirit of community has permeated my experience here in Lebanon, where I am in awe of how people will go out of their way here to make me feel welcome in their homes and neighborhoods. In some ways, many of the people that live here want to show the world that Lebanon is more than just the conflicts surrounding it. Despite having a painful history that lends itself to mistrust of others, the people in Lebanon I’ve come across, from local fishermen to wealthy businessmen, all offer more than they are able to outsiders and welcome them into their homes. I will do my best to illustrate an example of a time when I was in Batroun, a coastal town an hour’s drive from Beirut.
A few friends and I were swimming at sunset quite far out into the ocean, and a local fisherman was boating past us. The fisherman stopped his boat, turned it around, and picked us up out of the water. He took us on an amazing sunset ride down the coast, offered us drinks and food from his boat, and talked with us for over an hour about his life in Lebanon. While he had not taken out a loan from any of Kiva’s field partners, he did touch on the difficulties of trying to maintain one’s own small business in the country. “It’s a daily struggle,” he said, “to keep up with the cost of living and challenges in this country, but we keep going like we always have.”
Life in Lebanon does not come easy. The cost of living in the country is expensive, infrastructure is in need of a serious overhaul, and the bureacracy can make simple tasks take entire days. These challenges take a toll on everyone here and yet, Lebanon continues to look forward, carry on, and welcome those willing to give the country a chance with open arms.
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Priya Vithani is a twenty-six year old Middle East and entrepreneurship enthusiast from Virginia. After graduating from the University of Virginia in 2013 with a major in "Human Rights in the Middle East," Priya moved to Washington D.C. to start graduate school at George Washington University. Through her graduate program, Priya explored the connections between entrepreneurship and democratic development in the Middle East and North Africa region. While in school, Priya also worked as a desk officer at the U.S. Department of State, covering the North Africa region for the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Priya has lived in Jordan and Egypt before and speaks Arabic. In her spare time, she enjoys political satire, traveling, trying new foods, and hip hop (both dance and music).