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What he is describing is a phenomenon all too common throughout Lebanon, which is seeing its youth leave its small towns—and often, the nation itself—to pursue education and employment in larger Lebanese cities or abroad.
In the south, a predominately Shiite Muslim region, the emigration problem is particularly acute as small Christian communities worry for their survival after some 2,000 years of existence. Once the young Lebanese leave home to make their way in the world, they rarely return to the villages in which they grew up.
In Yaroun, for instance, both the public and private schools have closed due to a lack of students. In the village of 1,500, only 170 are Christians. Among them, there are a mere 15 children in the village—only one girl.
Melkite Greek Catholic priest Marios Khairallah, Archeparch of Tyre, says in Yaroun there are no new marriages, no newborns. Many of the Christians he serves live in Beirut and return home to visit only on weekends or holidays. In many cases, he sees families being broken apart as children move on, leaving behind aging parents and grandparents.
Ironically, construction booms on the outskirts of many small southern towns, as large homes with gated entrances are beginning to overtake the otherwise sparse landscape. Those homes are the property of Shiites, most of whom have made their fortunes elsewhere, especially in the Gulf states, and now are returning to build estates, many for only temporary use, in their original villages.
In the land of the powerful Hezbollah party, the growing presence of Shiite wealth is more than just a symbol to the dwindling Christian communities. It underscores that behind the lack of jobs and educational options, the region’s war-torn history is the root issue.
Lebanon was plagued by wars both internal and external for a decade and a half, beginning in 1975. As recently as 2006, the nation found itself caught in a war between Hezbollah and Israel.
In the south, where water is scarce, cultivation of products such as tobacco and olives long has sustained the population. To return to any kind of prosperity, however, the region needs more options for its people—and that means support and investment from the private sector. (Nearly universally, the Lebanese decry their government as corrupt and neglectful.)
But in an area where war could break out at seemingly any time, private investors are seemingly impossible to come by. Thus, so is economic development. In the village of Ain Ebel, only 200 meters from the Israeli border, even the vice-mayor splits his time between his hometown and Beirut. Nevertheless, he says that with some help, the southern Christians will not lose their hold on the land they love.
“We’re here because our roots are deep in this land. But that’s not enough,” says Tarek Matta. “To stay, we need support from others. “As long as there’s blood in our veins, there will always be crosses on these hills.”
Matta speaks with an obvious passion and expresses his determination to find a solution for his region’s many problems.
Sidawi says she feels “a special affection” for Ain Ebel. “Yes, of course, if we have work here, we stay here.” She describes the difficulties of being new to Beirut, where she feels like a stranger. It’s “like being born again,” she explains.
Bakhouni, the Melkite archbishop, insists that governments must take the initiative to make real peace. Only from there, he says, can the situation in Lebanon be reversed or improved. Says Bakhouni: “The one who is looking for peace will make sacrifices.”