At the age of 18, Samer al-Gharib left his hometown in Lebanon with one goal in mind: to finish his studies in the United Kingdom.
He is now pursuing a Master’s in Biomaterials and Tissue Engineering at University College London.
Lebanon is mired in the worst economic crisis seen in decades, pushing tens of thousands into poverty. Like many others, al-Gharib’s family is deeply affected by the fragile economic situation, which was worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the deadly explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020.
“[My parents] had enough money in the bank to help cover my tuition, but because of the crisis we haven’t been able to access those funds,” said al-Gharib, 22.
Last year, a law was passed to help students abroad by allowing them to transfer $10,000 from their banks at a cheaper exchange rate. But to further complicate matters, the Lebanese pound has lost about 90 percent of its value since 2019. Many have voiced their frustration as withdrawals and foreign transfers remain heavily restricted.
Al-Gharib took a job as a waiter at a London restaurant to support himself back in September. When the UK government imposed its latest lockdown in January to curb the spread of the coronavirus, things took a challenging turn.
‘I’m not meant to end my journey like this’
“My mom insisted that I return to Lebanon,” said al-Gharib. “When the restaurant shut I didn’t have an income any more.”
Desperate to find another option to pay his remaining university fees and living expenses, al-Gharib turned to social media for support.
He created a GoFundMe page with the hopes of getting back on his feet. “I’m not meant to end my journey like this,” he said.
He raised £19,111 ($26,740) in a week and was surprised to see such an outpouring of support. Al-Gharib hopes to return to Lebanon to give back to his community after he graduates, but remains doubtful. “I don’t know if the economic and political situation will give me room to do so.”
Resilience facing adversity
Rita Shibli, 23, a third-year student at Belgorod State University in Russia, decided to launch an online fundraiser to complete her medical programme.
Her situation went downhill when her father lost his job shortly after the explosion at the port of Beirut. “He stopped sending me money because he couldn’t even [afford] to send me a dollar,” Shilbli told Al Jazeera.
Her father, who worked as a tobacco seller in Lebanon, warned Shibli she would have to make a difficult decision as he struggled to make ends meet. “When I asked him whether he had a plan to help with my tuition he told me that he will try, but this will be my last year in Russia.”
Shibli’s tuition for medical school costs well over $1,000 per semester. She has not received financial support from her parents since last year, but decided to stay in Russia to complete her degree.
Shibli helps out at a car wash to earn some extra pocket money. “I work on commission, so some days no cars come. It’s the worst on cold days, I make no money and freeze for  hours,” she said.
Since the GoFundMe platform is banned in Russia, Shibli asked a close friend of hers in Lebanon to put a page together. On her current income, Shibli said it is barely enough to get by.
“Let’s say I wash a few cars on a good day, that’s about 2,000 Russian rubles. I make 30 percent of that [$5]. At night there is no [public] transport. My entire salary is gone just by paying for a taxi to get home.”
At times, Shibli said, she stumbles across anonymous messages on social media from people who condemn her for raising money as other Lebanese struggle. “Is it because I am a woman and they expect me to get married?” said Shibli. “It’s been affecting my mental health. Sometimes I cry myself to sleep knowing that I may stay without a future. But I’m still not gonna give up.”
Glimmer of hope
Daniel Mahmoud, 24, recently finished his Bachelor’s in Forensic Science at the University of Derby in the UK. But because of the economic collapse back home, he was not sure whether he would be able to graduate.
“I couldn’t get my degree unless the final instalment of my studies was paid off,” said Mahmoud. “The financial situation got worse … It was a struggle because my family’s money was losing its value.”
He worked at a restaurant and petrol station but decided to cut down to focus on finishing his education. After the UK went under COVID-19 lockdown, he realised he could not go back to those jobs.
“I was still trying to find ways to pay off my degree … I began to see fundraisers for people in Beirut on social media.”
After sharing his story, Mahmoud was able to secure $8,494 – just enough to pay off his remaining university fees. He shared his diploma with those who donated, expressing his gratitude.
“I’d like to say there [are] a lot of amazing people out there who are willing to help, and this experience shows that it is absolutely OK to reach out to others.”
Mahmoud is currently back home with his family, but without a job since October.
“Being [in Lebanon] feels like a close friend or relative dying because it’s something you’re so attached to – you see it wither away slowly and can’t do much about it,” he said.
‘Brain drain threat’
Lebanon’s crippled economy has driven a growing number of young people to search for opportunities elsewhere.
Petros Petrikkos, a political analyst specialising in Lebanon, said “brain drain” can have serious implications for the country’s future.
“On the one hand, you have people leaving because they feel there’s no future there for them. This is problematic because they’re essentially taking a risk by moving abroad, without guarantees and often without support,” said Petrikkos.
“On the other hand, they’re leaving behind a growing population. This means there are not enough people to sustain the economy, either because the elderly retire or die. If more and more young people leave, then less and less people inject money into the economy. The brain drain isn’t just a short-term problem, but it’s an alarmingly long-term threat.”
While social media has proved to be a powerful tool when it comes to crowdfunding campaigns for some, Petrikkos said it is not a viable solution for most people studying abroad.
“It does not guarantee that [the students] will be getting the [long-term] support that they need,” Petrikkos told Al Jazeera.
“The question here is – is it better for them to abandon their status and return home, where more uncertainty awaits? Or can they just rely on non-sustainable schemes in order to try and support themselves?”