Lama Massaad says she loves life in Lebanon. It’s different, she says, from her native Toronto. People enjoy their lives more here, and work less, than they do in Canada.
But after the Aug. 4 explosion that destroyed the port of Beirut – killing 180 people and creating a swirling political fallout that has many here talking about a possible return to civil war – Ms. Massaad she’s not sure she and her family should stay. So, she and her two daughters joined a long line-up outside the Canadian Embassy here on Monday, applying to renew the girls’ passports “just in case” it’s soon time to leave Lebanon in a hurry.
Ms. Massaad, a 45-year-old teacher, came to Lebanon with her family two years ago, after her husband was offered a well-paying job here. Now, after a year of economic freefall that has seen the country’s currency collapse, while food prices have skyrocketed, that salary is only worth a fraction of what it once was.
Then came the explosion, the resignation of the government, and the growing talk of violence. Ms. Massaad and her family, who live in the mountains outside Beirut, were uninjured by the blast, but they were nonetheless rattled by the boom the girls heard in the distance. “The kids just want to go back to Canada and get back to normal,” she said after filing their passport applications. “We don’t want to leave, but the country is pushing us out.”
The family is far from alone in wanting to leave Lebanon. Long lines are now common outside the Canadian, U.S. and French embassies here. Last week, the federal government set up a task force to deal with requests for consular assistance in Lebanon, where more than 11,000 Canadians are registered as permanent residents.
The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada saw a surge in refugee applications even before the explosion, with 200 new applications in the first quarter of 2020, compared to 552 in all of last year and 439 in 2018.
The sense of crisis swirling around Lebanon is expected to deepen on Tuesday, when an international tribunal in The Hague will hand down its long-awaited verdict in the 2005 assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri. Four members of Hezbollah, the country’s powerful Shia militia, stand accused in absentia of carrying out the car bombing that killed Mr. Hariri, who was the country’s most prominent Sunni leader, along with 21 others.
The verdict, and whatever Mr. Hariri’s son Saad says in the aftermath, could add an unpredictable element to anti-government protests scheduled for Tuesday outside the residence of President Michel Aoun, an ally of Hezbollah. Hezbollah and Mr. Aoun are backed by Iran and Syria, while the Hariri family and their allies are supported by the United States and France.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said his group will ignore Tuesday’s verdict. He has also warned protesters against trying to oust Mr. Aoun, while repeatedly invoking the possibility of another civil war.
Lebanon still lives in the shadow of a 1975-1990 conflict that was largely fought along sectarian lines, killing 120,000 people.
The protesters say Mr. Aoun, who ignored several warnings about the warehouse full of ammonium nitrate that detonated on Aug. 4, should resign and call snap elections. Mr. Aoun has deflected blame for the explosion, and investigators on Monday announced the formal arrest of Badri Daher, the country’s top customs official, in connection with the blast. Hassan Koraytem, the former general manager of the Port of Beirut, has also been questioned under house arrest.
Adding to the country’s misery, novel coronavirus cases have spiked in Lebanon since the explosion, which saw residents abandon physical distancing measures to help the more than 6,000 people who injured by the explosion. Three Beirut hospitals were knocked out of commission when the blast wave tore through the city, leading to crowding at the city’s other facilities, which were already operating near full capacity because of COVID-19.
The country, which has imposed a series of strict lockdowns since the pandemic began, saw a record 456 new cases on Monday, bringing the total number of cases in Lebanon past 9,000, including 105 deaths. Health Minister Hamad Hassan warned on Monday that the true number of cases could be far higher, and that the virus had now reached every corner of this tiny country of 6.8 million people. With hospitals already overwhelmed, Mr. Hassan said a new lockdown was “a matter of life and death.”
Among those lined up outside the Canadian Embassy on Monday, several said they believed Lebanon’s multiplying and interlocking crises would only get worse.
“I gave up on here. Not after the explosion, but a long time before that. It’s the political situation, the uncertainty,” said Julio Eid, a 28-year-old who said he was getting married next week, but was hoping to go to Canada as soon as possible after that. “There’s no future in Lebanon.”
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