Learning to live on the edge: Lebanese diaspora trade safety for family in return home
“Would you have space in your luggage to take some of my clothes with you to Beirut?" Elsa* is asking around. After living four years and a half in Paris, France, she is selling her furniture, and packing, and will relocate to Lebanon on 12 November.
"Although I studied and worked here, I am finding myself unable to imagine a future (in France)”, she said. She made her decision to return in August when the situation in Lebanon was comparatively more stable. Even then, her decision was met with mixed reactions.
“My dad is an anxious person who lived through the Lebanese civil war and fears the future. To him, my sister and I being in France guarantees that he does not have to worry about our safety.” Elsa’s mother is fully supportive and aware of the psychological issues her daughter faced while living abroad.
"Instability is something you take into account when you move back [to Lebanon]"
The war that broke out between Hamas and Israel on 7 October, the resulting conflict on Lebanon’s southern border between Hezbollah, and a potential conflict engulfing Lebanon and the whole region, have not prompted her to reconsider her move.
“I reacted in a quite selfish way when the war broke out: I wanted my journey home to happen in joy. Now the situation has devolved and I am trying to strike a balance between not being in denial and not obsessing over it.”
Not so long ago, Sarah-Christiane Hazim made a similar leap to Elsa’s. She relocated to Lebanon after having spent more than 20 years abroad in Bahrain, France, Georgia, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. So far, she has only experienced Lebanon in the way that many Lebanese living abroad do, visiting the country for holiday periods.
She eventually landed in Beirut on 14 October, one week into the war, when clashes had already erupted alongside the southern border.
“I thought this may be a very wrong timing to relocate”, she said. Sarah-Christiane has never lived in a war and is experiencing difficulties reading the situation. “On my first night, there was very heavy thunder and I thought we were being attacked.”
First, she coordinated with the French Embassy, hoping to confirm she would be evacuated along with her two dogs - she holds a French passport. “I am learning how to manage a security crisis: my emergency backpack with all my papers and cash is prepared, and I have stocked up on water. I have changed my mind: I will not leave.”
Sarah-Christiane lives in Ashrafieh, an area she thinks would be spared should the conflict expand to the rest of the country. Her new emergency plan is to move northwards if necessary, while 29,000 Lebanese from the south of the country, along the Israeli border, are already internally displaced.
Contrary to Sarah-Christiane, Roy Ghandour is planning to go back to Lebanon in early 2024, knowing full well what instability and war look like in his home country. Born during the Israeli invasion of 1982, having witnessed Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996 (when Israel launched a seventeen-day campaign against Hezbollah), Roy Ghandour also landed on 12 July 2006, the very day the war started.
“Instability is something you take into account when you move back," he said.
After 20 years spent abroad, especially in France, he said he is “ready to trade off safety and security for a Lebanese social life." His exit plan consists of “holding a French passport: should I lose everything I have in Lebanon, I could just go back."
These examples of Lebanese returning home constitute “anecdotal evidence” as there are “no reliable figures” for the relevant timeframe, researcher Tamirace Fakhoury, an associate professor of Political Science at Aalborg University in Copenhagen said.
While unstable, Lebanon offers a space that is more supportive of the Palestinian cause than many other countries. “I find the media coverage of the conflict between Hamas and Israel unbearable, and I am a witness to the discrepancy between the narratives of my French friends and that of my friends from the region," Roy told The New Arab. He deplored “the gradual shift of the electorate and the government towards the right wing and neoliberalism."
Similarly, Sarah-Christiane described her situation as a choice to “live in a country at risk of war or in a country where I feel oppressed because my opinion about the conflict does not align with the majority, and where I may be forbidden to protest”. She referred to France, which has repeatedly banned protests in support of the Palestinians.
“I have realised my safe place may not be where I thought it was.”
Many Lebanese have, on top of political and personal concerns, serious professional ones. Racelle* relocated a month ago from Istanbul, Turkey. She had left Lebanon with her husband in 2021 when electricity shortages caused by a devastating economic crisis affected her ability to work remotely.
"The situation in Lebanon stabilised in 2023, we came back and started our own company. Last month, we renovated an office and hired employees. We are located in Beirut and so far, the Israeli strikes remain contained at the border, but we are stressed that one bomb could destroy all our work."
Her employees are especially worried that in case of a war, banks would close, preventing her from accessing the money she needs to pay their salaries. She is also concerned that the situation may act as a deterrent for her foreign clients.
"If we are dragged into another war and have to leave, I won't have the energy to start all over again, whether in Turkey or a third country”, Racelle said.
*Elsa and Racelle asked their full names not to be disclosed.
Laure Delacloche is a French freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon, She focuses on social issues, especially how crises impact women. Her work has appeared in French and international outlets and is a member of Solvo, a solutions-oriented collective of journalists.
Follow her on X: @LaureDelacloche