Iraq, once synonymous with conflict and chaos, is becoming a land of opportunity for Lebanese job seekers fleeing a deep economic crisis at home.
Akram Johari is one of thousands of people who have fled Lebanon’s falling currency and soaring poverty rates.
Last year, he packed his bags and boarded a plane from Beirut to Baghdad, using social media to seek opportunities.
“I haven’t had enough time to look for a job in the Gulf,” the 42-year-old said, explaining why he’s shunned the more traditional route for those seeking economic opportunities in the region.
With its relative proximity and visas on arrival for Lebanese, the Iraqi capital seemed like a good option.
“I had to act fast, so I came to Baghdad and started looking for work on Instagram,” Johari said, speaking at a restaurant he’s been running for about a month.
Lebanon is grappling with an unprecedented financial crisis that the World Bank says is on a scale usually associated with war.
The Beirut crisis, caused by years of endemic corruption, saw the Lebanese currency lose more than 90% of its value against the dollar.
Lebanon’s monthly minimum wage of 675,000 pounds now costs around $30 on the black market, and around 80% of the population now lives in poverty, according to the UN.
When he left Beirut, Johari was earning the equivalent of around $100 a month. In Iraq, he earns enough to support his family back home, he said.
– Thousands flock to Iraq –
More than 20,000 Lebanese citizens arrived in Iraq between June 2021 and February 2022, not counting pilgrims visiting the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, according to Iraqi authorities.
Lebanon’s ambassador to Baghdad, Ali Habhab, said movements from Lebanon to Iraq “have increased recently”.
There are more than 900 Lebanese companies currently operating in Iraq, the majority of them in catering, tourism and health, Habhab said.
In particular, there have been “dozens of Lebanese doctors offering their services” in Iraqi hospitals, he said.
The decades of conflict in Iraq – from the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s to the US-led invasion in 2003 and subsequent sectarian conflict to the rise of the Islamic State group in 2014 – mean that Baghdad might seem like an unlikely magnet for those looking to build a new life.
But since the country declared victory over ISIS in 2017, Iraq has slowly begun to regain its stability.
Today, the streets of Baghdad that were once the scene of atrocities are packed with shops lining the main thoroughfares and cafes open until late at night.
According to Iraqi economic expert Ali al-Rawi, many Lebanese companies have come to Iraq because they “know the investment environment well”, while many foreign companies from other countries are “afraid to invest”. because of his violent past.
“There is a lot of room for Lebanese companies in the Iraqi economy,” he said.
But Iraqis themselves have seen their fair share of economic hardship.
In a country where 90% of income comes from oil sales, about a third of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.
In 2019, nationwide protests erupted across Iraq, fueled by anger over rampant corruption, lack of basic services and unemployment – similar factors driving protests in Lebanon. which erupted around the same time.
– Lebanese companies are flourishing –
Lebanon was once a top destination for medical tourism, with Iraqis flocking to better-equipped medical centers in Beirut and other cities.
But, as in other sectors, the economic crisis in Lebanon has affected health care.
The specialized eye and ENT hospital in Beirut was once popular with Iraqi patients, but hospital official Michael Cherfan said “many doctors have left Lebanon”.
The hospital responded to the crisis as many Lebanese did – by opening a branch in Baghdad, sparing Iraqis the trip to Beirut.
“Our doctors take turns coming,” Cherfan said. “Every week, one or two doctors come to do consultations and operations, earn a little money and then return to Lebanon, which makes it possible to compensate for part of their losses.”
For Johari, although the money he earns in Iraq supports his family, it tastes bittersweet. He returns home once a month, but misses his family.
“It saddens me very much that I can’t watch my two-month-old daughter grow up,” he said.