ONE Magazine

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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

Putting the Future in Their Hands

A microcredit program improves lives in Lebanon

As the airplane makes its descent into Hariri International Airport in Beirut, the city’s sprawling metropolitan area comes into view. Its historic center nestles on a stout peninsula jutting westward into the Mediterranean Sea. High–rise office buildings, luxury hotels and doorman apartments, however, extend north and south for miles along the sea’s distinctly turquoise coastline.

For a city largely destroyed by the bloody civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990 and subsequently damaged in other conflicts, the numerous structures and cranes stand as a testament to Beirut’s restored stature as a modern, international hub. They also signify a long–anticipated peace and prosperity. Since 2008 — in spite of the global recession — the country’s economy has consistently grown by 7 percent or more each year.

While Lebanon’s economy fares well overall, it seems only a handful of its nearly 4.5 million people reaps the benefits. Lebanon’s unemployment rate hovers at 9.2 percent, with significant numbers of underemployed. Youth in particular find it as difficult as ever to secure gainful employment. Each year, an estimated 40,000 Lebanese emigrate; most are students or young professionals seeking better career prospects than their native country can offer.

Recent economic growth has also done little to improve the lot of Lebanon’s poor. The rate of poverty has remained static since the 1990’s. According to the United Nations Development Program, approximately 28.5 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line, or on $4 or less a day. And 8 percent, or roughly 300,000 individuals, live in extreme poverty and are unable to meet their basic needs.

Though the Lebanese government has taken measures to reduce poverty, local and international charities largely provide direct and ongoing assistance to Lebanon’s most needy. Among the first of these charities is CNEWA–Pontifical Mission, which for decades has served as a lifeline to countless Lebanese. With its Beirut–based staff, CNEWA–Pontifical Mission has provided humanitarian relief in times of war, along with financial and material assistance in times of economic hardship. Its many projects include developing local infrastructure, such as irrigation systems in rural areas, and supporting a wide range of social service institutions, health care facilities and schools.

In an effort to help people help themselves and jump–start local economies, CNEWA– Pontifical Mission launched a microcredit program in 2003. The program offers loans to individuals who wish to establish new or expand existing small businesses but who have little or no collateral and do not qualify for traditional bank loans.

“The program is not designed for the poorest of the poor, but rather for those who have the capability to run a small–scale business,” says Issam Bishara, regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Mr. Bishara and his staff select recipients after interviewing candidates and approving their business proposals and loan guarantors. The agency then arranges and financially backs the loans, which range from $3,000 to $10,000, through one of three private banks in Lebanon — Bank Audi, Bank Beirut and First National Bank. The partner bank then reviews the proposal and, if approved, deposits the money in the nearest branch office.

“Many years ago, we learned that for such a program to succeed, we needed to work with banks to handle all the transactions on our behalf. The trick was to negotiate a low percentage rate for handling fees,” explains Mr. Bishara.

“Compared to what commercial banks usually charge — normally a 13 percent flat rate — our program charges either 6 percent at a diminishing rate, or a 4 percent flat rate. In addition, we do not ask for the different administrative fees charged by the banks.”

Throughout the life of the loan, staff at CNEWA–Pontifical Mission closely monitors and periodically evaluates each project.

So far, more than 360 individuals have participated in the microcredit program. Though most beneficiaries belong to one of the country’s several Christian communities, the program serves members of all the country’s religious groups without distinction. At least 10 percent of the recipients are Muslim, a percentage the agency expects to grow in the coming years.

Though the success of the program can be easily measured in hard numbers — 99 percent of the participants successfully repay their loans — the vast improvement in the lives of its participants cannot. The many small businesses across Lebanon created with the loans not only provide livelihoods to the owners and their families, but to employees who would otherwise not be working.

In Biakout, a village in the Mount Lebanon District just east of Beirut, one beneficiary of the program, 48–year–old Roula Zaarour, sits on a plastic chair between two employees in a small garment factory she owns and runs.

A naked light bulb illuminates the small, loftlike space. On the wall behind them hangs a framed picture of Jesus, with a long white plastic rosary draped around it.

With undivided attention, the three women focus on the blue and purple fabrics as they slide under their sewing machines’ needles. Attached to each machine, large spools of thread spin incessantly.

Little by little, the fabric takes the shape of ready–to–wear dresses, which sell for $1.50 a piece. On average, the factory produces 350 dresses per week, which bring in about $2,100 gross a month.

After paying out the operating expenses, which include the rent, electricity and her employees’ salaries, the married mother of three takes home a net income of about $1,200 a month — some four times what she earned before going into business for herself. With the money, she helps support her family and pays her children’s tuition at a nearby school, which costs some $8,000 a year. Mrs. Zaarour has also paid back in full the banks loans she obtained through CNEWA–Pontifical Mission that made her business possible.

“At 18, I told my father I wanted to work,” says Mrs. Zaarour, whose henna–dyed hair, slicked back in a tight ponytail, shows gray roots along her forehead. The rhinestones in her striped T–shirt sparkle in the uneven light. “At first, he said no. But my brothers mediated and I got a job in a lingerie factory.”

“I worked there for nine years and learned embroidery, which I loved,” beams Mrs. Zaarour. Her razor thin eyebrows rise as two big dimples pierce her cheeks.

At 28, she married, but her husband insisted she quit work and stay at home. When he fell ill five years ago and had to take sick leave from his job as a truck driver, she needed to find well–paying work fast to help the family make ends meet.

At that moment, she decided to start her own business. After hearing about CNEWA–Pontifical Mission’s microcredit program, Mrs. Zaarour visited the office and applied for a loan. A family friend and soldier in the army agreed to guarantee the loan. The agency and a partner bank quickly approved her request and $4,300 was deposited in her bank account.

The money allowed her to purchase a sewing machine, supplies and later rent the current factory space across the street from her family’s apartment in Biakout. She immediately contacted women’s clothing suppliers and, in no time, she was making garments for them as an individual contractor.

To keep up with the growing demand for her clothes, she took out a second loan through CNEWA–Pontifical Mission for $5,000, with which she purchased six more specialized sewing machines and hired employees.

“Without the Pontifical Mission, I would have been a housewife and stayed at home and done nothing,” says Mrs. Zaarour, who works long hours every day, seven days a week. “Now, I dream of owning a big manufacturing business.”

Just outside the nearby city of Byblos, 48– year old Anis Hoayek repairs the broken seat on a wooden chair in his tiny weaving shop. A green drill and red toolbox rest on the floor within reach of his left hand from where he sits. A wheelchair leans against the wall behind him; a pair of crutches are propped against the wall next to him.

“I got polio in 1964 when I was a year old,” he explains, as he struggles to hold the seat still against his right shoulder. The illness paralyzed his left leg and right arm and disfigured his left hand. He manages to do most things, including weaving, with his left hand. Recently, he underwent surgery, which has improved his left hand’s dexterity and appearance.

He speaks as he works, bending and pushing the fresh cane in and out of the seat’s wooden webbing.

“I didn’t start school until I was 12,” continues Mr. Hoayek, whose receding salt and pepper hair and thick mustache frame his dark–featured face. “I was first in my class in grade school. I didn’t have to take exams because I did so well. But, the teacher expelled me because she said I was handicapped and needed to go to a special school.” Fifteen years old at the time, he never went back to school again, abandoning his childhood dream of being a teacher.

At age 17, he learned the art of weaving from an expert in Byblos, who took the young man under his wing. He has been weaving ever since. Over the past 30 years, he has earned a reputation for his masterly skill throughout the region. Most everyone who lives in the vicinity knows Mr. Hoayek, and word of his talent has spread even further. People from all over, especially carpenters, come to the man’s tiny workshop to buy, order or have repaired wicker beds, chairs and sofas.

However, it has only been in the last two years, after learning about the CNEWA–Pontifical Mission microcredit program through his brother, a parish priest in the neighboring town of Amchit, that he has sought to make a living at it. As a supervisor at a local mattress factory, Mr. Hoayek was able to guarantee his $4,300 loan with his own salary.

With the money from the loan, he purchased equipment, tools and materials. And with some help from his neighbors, he built his shop. Though he still works at the local mattress factory, he now spends his nights and weekends weaving, struggling to keep up with demand.

In just a year and a half, Mr. Hoayek has nearly doubled his household income. He now travels to Beirut once a month to purchase large quantities of cane, wicker and other materials.

“My dream now,” he says, “is to expand my shop, buy more tools and, one day, hire people with special needs like me.”

On a sunny afternoon in Najjariyeh, a rural coastal community outside the city of Sidon, about 26 miles south of Beirut, Haidar Hallal is hard at work on his small farm. The Mediterranean Sea shimmers on the western horizon, beyond an expanse of lush, green hills.

Though only 41 years old, the Shiite Muslim looks at first glance much older. His short hair has whitened prematurely, his thick, dark beard, largely grayed. Tall and thin, he is confined to a wheelchair.

At the age of 15, on his way to school, he suddenly found himself in the crossfire between warring sects. A stray bullet hit the boy in his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. He never returned to school nor walked again.

Mr. Hallal’s looks, however, are deceptive. The seemingly frail man displays the energy of a youthful athlete and the charisma of a junior politician.

That afternoon, two men arrive at the farm and take a seat in white plastic chairs on the brick home’s front porch. A ceiling fan spins overhead. The scent of gardenias permeates the air. Under a cluster of avocado tress nearby, a group of four chickens can be seen hiding from the sun’s sweltering rays.

The men have come from the neighboring Beqa’a Valley region to purchase baby quail, which Mr. Hallal raises along with other exotic birds, chickens, cows and honeybees.

Mr. Hallal’s sister helps her brother with the transaction. Wearing a white hijab, a bright red shirt and leopard skin–patterned pants, she pushes her brother to his small shop and the two disappear inside. Moments later, they reemerge and return to the porch. Mr. Hallal carries on his lap a sturdy cardboard box, which he hands over to the men. Inside the box, a dozen quail chicks chirp nervously.

“I specialize in birds that people keep as exotic pets,” says Mr. Hallal, puffing on a cigarette.

Mr. Hallal first began raising and selling exotic birds and free–range chickens and eggs at the age of 25. By word of mouth, little by little, he has attracted a regular and loyal clientele.

But it was not until the last six or seven years, after obtaining loans through CNEWA–Pontifical Mission, that Mr. Hallal has been able to transform his passion into a profitable business. He now also sells cows’ milk and honey to a growing number of individuals and businesses. In recent years, he earns on average $800 a month in net profits — enough to support himself, his mother and two unmarried sisters.

Mr. Hallal learned about the microcredit program through one of his customers, Father Hanna Dagher, the current director of Beirut’s Theological and Pastoral Studies Institute. One day, years ago, Father Dagher stopped by the farm to purchase some chickens for his aging parents, who at the time were displaced by the war. The men hit it off right away. The priest became one of Mr. Hallal’s regular customers, and over the years, the two developed a close friendship. When CNEWA–Pontifical Mission launched its microcredit program, Father Dagher encouraged Mr. Hallal to apply, offering to guarantee his loan.

In 2004, Mr. Hallal received his first loan of $4,300. With it, he purchased a refrigerator, retooled to function as an egg incubator. He also bought heat lamps to keep chicks warm and other essential equipment and supplies.

His third and most recent loan of $6,500 allowed him to buy five dairy cows as well as the bees and supplies for an apiary. He says his next major purchase will be a real industrial incubator and hatchery.

“Without the loans, I’d be sitting here drinking coffee, not working and depending on others,” says Mr. Hallal.

Unable to stop working for more than a few moments, he wheels himself off the porch and to the apiary a few yards away. The apiary consists of two orderly rows of six whitewooden boxes, each of which sits atop several black automobile tires. Mr. Hallal squeezes between the rows, as honeybees swarm all around him. Without flinching, he stops at each box, removes its metal top and examines the screens inside that collect the beeswax. After replacing the metal on the 12th and last box, he wheels back to the porch. Pleased by what he has seen, he smiles broadly.

“Being honest is beautiful,” he says. “I am hard working, it’s true. But if you want to live, you have to work.”

Journalist Diane Handal and Beirut-based photographer Dahilia Khamissy cover events in the Middle East.

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