'I'd rather die from a missile here than from hunger back home': Lebanese in Ukraine prefer to stay put than return home
Ukraine is one of the most diverse countries when it comes to foreign student intake. Many come from the Middle East as a part of the historical cultural exchange between the USSR and non-aligned countries such as Lebanon.
This is how Shadi Khatib first came to Russia and then to Ukraine. He now takes care of 600 students at National Aviation University.
He has now been in Ukraine for thirty years, and owns two restaurants around the university, but “we had to close them, it was hard after Covid, but now my chefs have left, we had one Palestinian and one Lebanese but they both left."
Shadi has a lot of work on his hands, although most of the students left, he still has to deal with administrative issues. “We have all the diplomas that we need to send through DHL."
"We have lived through the civil war in Lebanon, our money is stuck in the bank, we started businesses here, we cannot just leave it and start all over again"
When we ask him why he stays here, many things come up. Firstly, “I have been living here for thirty years, this is home. But also, Ukraine is a functioning country, even in times of war. Lebanon is like a war-torn country, there is no electricity, no water, the only difference is that there are no explosions."
Further from the centre, Houssein lives in a house that he built.
For the past ten years, Houssein studied architecture in Kyiv and then started working for a construction company. “On the 24th of February, on the first day of the full-scale invasion, I went to work, but no one was there."
The country came to a halt, but Houssein refused to leave. “I grew up in Lebanon, not far from Baalbek. We lived through Israeli air raids, this war does not scare me, do I look scared?” He does not.
Houssein speaks Russian, widely used in Ukraine, although many are now switching to Ukrainian. “I grew up in Lebanon speaking Russian, my mother is from Ukraine. My parents worked as doctors for forty years and had over 400.000$ of savings in the bank, but it all disappeared."
Many depositors in Lebanon have lost their life saving after the crash of the economic system.
His parents now live a few blocks away from him in an apartment Houssein is renting out for them. “They came to visit me in January 2020, and a few days before they were supposed to leave, the war started and the airport was bombed, it made it much harder for them to leave, he says with a smile. I’m happy they stayed."
Houssein does not want to go back to Lebanon, although he carries a Lebanese passport. “I’d rather die in Ukraine from a missile, than from hunger in Lebanon. I would have no work, none of my friends in Lebanon work, they just sit at home all day. Here, we can still party, malls, cinemas, night clubs are still open."
To counter the curfew, he simply enters at 10 pm and leaves at 5 am, when it’s legal to be outdoors.
“I simply wish I knew my neighbours better, like in Lebanon… Here, everyone stays in their homes, and people don’t know each other very well," he says, eating a Man’oucheh from a restaurant called Beirut Café, to counter the homesick feeling that can sometimes be overwhelming.
Beirut Café is owned by Moussa Fawaz, who has been working in the food business for the past 26 years. “I came here at 17, back in 1994. My older brother opened a restaurant, so I came and helped him. I haven’t moved since."
He married a Lebanese woman, Zainab, and has three children. They are currently studying online but will stay in Kyiv. “The only thing that will make us leave is if rockets land on our house. Even so, I would come back," he says. “This is my wife and I’s second country, but it is my children’s first country, they have all their lives here."
Bassel, the owner of Lina’s restaurant in the city centre, preferred to take his wife and children to safety. Living in Kharkiv, a missile fell right next door. “When the police came to find out who was alive or not, they told me that God came down and let us live. After that, we left."
Bassel initially moved to Romania but then moved to three more countries before settling in Switzerland. “As soon as we set foot in Switzerland, my wife told me ‘here is where I want to be', so we stayed."
Bassel stayed for two weeks and then came back to Kyiv when things were calmer. “We have lived through the civil war in Lebanon, our money is stuck in the bank, we started businesses here, we cannot just leave it and start all over again."
Now Bassel goes to Switzerland once in a while, to visit his family, reassured by the fact that they are safe. “Lebanon and Ukraine are the same thing. Both countries are led by mafias, they just changed from uniforms to suits. The corruption is terrible here,” says Bassel. Yet, he will stay, and one day “open a restaurant in Switzerland, the shawarma there cost 15 euros, here, I sell them for 1.20 euros!” Business is business, in Ukraine or elsewhere.
Clotilde Bigot is a freelance journalist and photographer based in Beirut, focusing on diplomacy and human rights.
Follow her on Twitter: @clo_bigot