“I don’t have time to sit and weep, I won’t. I have to think about how I can manage my own affairs.”
Laila (alias) received a sealed envelope containing an official letter ending her employment in the administrative department of the American University, where she had been working for 30 years.
Only ten days ago, her husband returned to Lebanon from the Gulf after losing his job, due to the declining economic situation and the effects of the Coronavirus epidemic.
Today, both are out of work during the most difficult stage Lebanon has ever gone through in its history.
Laila has two daughters, the oldest is in her last year of school, and she had always promised herself that she would study at the American University of Beirut, where her mother studied and worked, and where employees’ children generally get the benefit of tuition grants in the most important university in Lebanon.
“My daughter was shocked, and she’s pretty sad. Ever since she was a young girl we’ve talked about her studying at the American University, and whenever I met students at the Registration Department, I’d imagine the moment I’d see my daughter with them… that seems unlikely today.”
According to the termination letter, Laila will receive a compensation of 20 months’ salaries, which have now decreased in value as the exchange rate of the lira decreased to one third of its original value, and in some cases decreased to one quarter, determined in its dollar equivalent. The health insurance will in fact remain available, and she has about a year to put her affairs in order, although the financial and economic collapse in Lebanon will make it difficult to find a job easily.
Laila was not the only one to have her life turned upside down. She and her colleague and friend of more than 20 years, Nada, left the administrative building together after they were dismissed from their work. Nada is only a few years away from her retirement age. She looked forward to leaving her office at the American University after 37 years of work, with a goodbye ceremony just like the several she had thrown for colleagues who had resigned or retired from their work before.
That, however, did not happen.
On Friday (17th July 2020), she was informed through a sealed envelope, after she was unable to access her e-account in her administrative workplace at the American University, of the termination of her contract, to become among the 800 employees who were dismissed.
Before she was informed, Nada used her phone to take photos of how she and her colleagues had gathered in the office hallways waiting for their moment of doom in an atmosphere of tears, fear, and anxiety.
It was a day that the Lebanese public watched in sadness, as pictures and testimonies of the employees who lost their jobs came out. One employee was worried about how he will complete his cancer treatment, while another was worried about how she will provide for her young children after her divorce, since her husband was not paying child support.
Tears and shock spread across the employees’ faces in front of the hospital entrances, while a group of Lebanese army vehicles surrounded the American University. The stories that filled the Lebanese space were numerous, real and sad, just like all the other stories of Lebanese citizens who lost their jobs and livelihood during the past months.
The irony is that the entity that dismissed the employees was none other than the American University of Beirut, the prestigious institution established in 1866, before the founding of Lebanon itself, and developed as an academic institution, a major research and healing institution, one that became the second largest employer in Lebanon after the state.
Compounding the contradictions of the moment, at the height of this difficult situation for more than 800 families who lost their livelihood, and 800 more waiting to join them, it has been reported that the university’s administration and its president, Fadlo Khuri, have chosen to remain silent. The silence indicates a lack in the administration’s sensitivity to the tragedy of the employees who have been laid off, opposite to what this administration, led by Khuri, had claimed when it declared its support for the Lebanese uprising on the 17th of October in 2019. After this decision, Khuri is in no way different from state officials, when they’d left the Lebanese citizens alone to face the collapse and fled with their gains to safe havens.
Just like the first Lebanese president of AUB, and its 16th president, Khuri’s presence and speech during the last few months were very prominent, as we saw him supporting the Lebanese uprising last October. We heard him dispute with the current government and describe it on television as “the worst government in Lebanese history” challenging Prime Minister Hassan Deyab, who is suing the American University to get his salaries and compensation. Khuri put himself in a confrontation with the Hezbollah-sponsored era, which had many people praising him for fighting a battle that has been refused or defeated by many others, but how could the one who decided to stand up to the country’s most difficult adversary decide to stay silent facing the tragic spectacle at the entrances of the university and the hospital?
If Fadlo Khuri finds it easy to express, just like most Lebanese, that Hezbollah’s government is “the worst”, how then can the current administration of the American University be described?
A few weeks ago, Khuri held a press conference in which he spoke of the great difficulties his administration is facing, holding the country’s financial and economic situation responsible for withholding the university’s credits.
However, the budget deficit of the American University in Beirut is due not only to the general financial situation, which has definitely worsened the situation, but it is also due to the maladministration, which is frequently mentioned by administrators and academics inside the university. The performance of this administration has raised many questions in recent years, especially in reference to the ill-advised extension that cost about half a billion USD, including huge construction works, under the pretext of turning the university and hospital into a regional medical center that competes with similar international centers. It was provided with so much luxury equipment that there was a plan for a heliport and additional recruitment of managers and employees, in addition to the increase in salaries and the number of vice-presidents.
Currently, accusations continue to be made about who is responsible for the unconsidered and unwarranted expansion in recent years. But what is clear today is that no one has paid the price of those expansions except for the employees who were dismissed.
The American University of Beirut, one of the most prestigious universities in the Arab region, has survived the civil war. Two of its heads were assassinated in addition to a bomb explosion in one of its buildings, yet, today, it declares it is facing an economic collapse.
Where did all the money and the donations that were, and still are, received by the university go? Was this inevitable?
The truth revealed by the staff layoff procedures is that the American University has repeated the mistake committed by the postwar governments, that reduced postwar Lebanon to a country of tourism, hotels and banks, a country of sea, humus and dancing. A country jumping over the facts of its regional entailments, Hezbollah’s weapons and all its dilemmas, toward banks and tourism…
This is exactly what was behind the idea of the massive expansion executed by the American University in the past few years, and it has made a wrong bet. How can a country and a region that had been subjected to wars and crises be immune to all this and become a costly oasis for healing, that allows the wealthy to reach the hospital in a helicopter?
The employees who were laid off paid the price for the “touristic” expansion just as the Lebanese paid the price for the fact that the postwar country was not a hotel nor a nightclub, but a regional messaging arena and a mailbox.
Most importantly, the American University’s administration chose the most vulnerable segment of employees and turned them into a scapegoat for their wrong policies and choices that caused the crisis in the first place. More importantly, the exceedingly high salaries of the university officials, led by Fadlo Khuri, were protected. Although Khuri was quoted as saying that no one is immune to the procedures, even those who enjoy a high income, the university administration chose to begin their cuts from a very wrong area.
Once again, it was a process that was completed between the university and the authorities in Lebanon, where the latter protected large depositors, by allowing them to smuggle their deposits, and the collapse fell on the heads of small depositors.