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Lebanon: When hard work is not enough

Portrait of Taha Taleb

Taha has taken every job he can to earn money for his family, but still finds it difficult to provide. Photo: Marguerita Sejaan/CARE

Taha has taken every job he can to earn money for his family, but still finds it difficult to provide. Photo: Marguerita Sejaan/CARE

We are climbing up endless flights of stairs and weaving through urban warrens in the Beb el Ramel neighborhood of Tripoli. Step after step, I wonder how older people make this hike to and from their homes every day. We pass very few people despite the density of houses here. Others just look out their doors or windows.

We are on our way to meet Taha Taleb, a father of four. Taha and his family have moved in with his 67-year-old mother after he lost his job and could no longer afford to pay rent for his own home. He works two or three days a week as a taxi driver, but the cost to rent the car often exceeds the money he makes driving it.

“In this country if you’re working, you have to work 4-5 jobs to live,” he says.

“To get food, good food. To pay bills.”

Taha’s children, three boys and one girl, are the center of his universe. He knows it’s hard for them, too. Taha’s mother will sometimes scold them if they are playing in the house. “Don’t do this and don’t do that and don’t do this and don’t do that,” he explains.

Taha’s youngest, a three-year-old boy named Muhamad, has been very sick since birth and looks much younger than he is. “One year, one year and a half,” Taha says, confirming his son is very small for his age. “He can’t talk, he can’t walk, nothing.” When he was born, the doctors separated him from his mother for 55 days, saying “maybe he’s going to be living, maybe not. No one knows.” Muhamad suffers from terrible seizures that require regular intravenous treatments. It’s very expensive and forces Taha and his wife to make unimaginable choices.

“If he doesn’t get the medicine, he can shake a lot, and his sleeping… doesn’t work.” Even when Muhamad is awake, Taha says, he is not present, meaning he is listless. “He’s not in this life. It’s gone. If I don’t have the medicine here in the house, and I have a little money, of course, I’m going to go get him the medicine first… [if] I’m not giving the medicine, no one knows, only God, what is going to happen.”

Narrow streetscape in Tripoli.
Despite the density of homes in the neighborhood, few people are on the street. Photo: Marguerita Sejaan/CARE

Kids first

Taha lived in Australia for seven years. He speaks of the differences in the healthcare system there and the one in Lebanon. “If you’re going to go to the hospital you don’t have to think ‘oh, I’m going to take him to the hospital but I don’t have money, maybe he’s going to die.’ You go to the hospital straight away. You go inside. And they do everything. You’re not going to die.”

You can hear the frustration Taha lives with. Without question, his kids come first.

“I don’t want anything for me. I only want for my kids. To let my kids [be] happy.”

“If my son or my girl, they to me and says ‘oh, dad, give me money to go buy something.’ And if I don’t have money, how am I going to give it to [them]? I can’t. And I can’t let Muhamad, if he doesn’t have medicine, to give the money for another kid, I can’t. For Rami or Ali or Rima, I can’t get them nothing… that’s the problem in this country.”

“And if in my head I can change, I go from this country to get a better life for my kids, not for me. For my kids. I don’t want nothing for me.”

Photo: Kate Crosby/CARE

Willingness seeking an opportunity

Taha wants to work, seeking any job that will pay him. “I work [as a] cleaner, I work whatever you want. Anything. To let [my] kids, to let my family [be] happy.” Taha talks about living in a place where he doesn’t have to worry about money just to get his son the treatment he needs.

Taha has been part of a monthly cash voucher program through CARE, but the program will end for him next month. “When CARE gave it to me, this card, I can get him milk, I can get him food, … but now, when they finish, I’m not going to [be able to] get him what he needs.”

Muhamad has been sleeping during our visit, but as we come to the end of our conversation, he wakes up, and Taha brings him out to see us. Everything that Taha has been telling us is even more vivid in this moment; his tenderness, his wish for a better life for his children, for a home of their own, and his search for a way forward.

A small child rests agains the chest and face of an adult
Photo: Kate Crosby/CARE
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