As Lebanon prices soar, mothers barter clothes for baby milk
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An evening dress for milk formula, children's clothes for cooking oil -- as they watch prices soar in crisis-hit Lebanon, parents are taking to bartering online to survive.
Tens of thousands of people across the social spectrum have lost their job or part of their income because of Lebanon's worst economic crisis in decades.
As the Lebanese pound has plunged to historic lows in the market, many have reverted to non-cash transactions.
On Facebook, a group called "Lebanon barters" has attracted 12,000 users in just two weeks.
Among them, Zeinab, 25, is offering a black evening dress in exchange for milk formula and two packets of nappies for her 11-month-old baby boy.
"I've never asked for anything from anyone, so I thought bartering would be better," she said.
"I'd feel more comfortable if I swapped something I didn't need for what I really do."
Until very recently her family lived a "good" life, said the make-up artist from the northern city of Tripoli.
But then the financial crisis hit, turning their lives upside-down.
Her husband's employer closed shop, and the novel coronavirus pandemic prevented her from seeing clients.
As the economy nose-dived, diapers suddenly cost nearly three times as much, and the price tag on milk formula almost doubled.
"We're now spending the small amount we managed to save, but I don't know what we'll do when it runs out," Zeinab said.
- 'No longer able to pay' -
Food prices have shot up by 72 percent since the autumn, the non-governmental Consumer Protection Association says.
Although Lebanon's currency is officially pegged at 1,507 pounds to the dollar, a shortage of hard currency has seen that rate plummet to more than 8,000 on the black market.
Aid workers and volunteers say families that were once well-off are now struggling to put bread on the table, let alone pay for medication.
Economists are speaking of the disappearance of the middle class.
Hassan Hasna, founder of the "Lebanon barter" page, said he and others started the group as a practical solution "because people no longer had money in hand".
"But we were surprised by how sad some cases were."
On the page, another mother has asked for something to eat in exchange for some of her five-year-old daughter's clothes.
A third woman says she can provide two food parcels in exchange for cleaning products and anything useful for her children.
Instead of food, Nourhan requested a physiotherapy session for a friend's child with cerebral palsy, and said she would hand over decorative trays and a box as compensation.
"She initially tried to sell it but I suggested she swap it instead as people are no longer able to pay or buy anything," she said.
"She agreed because she had no other option" after her husband lost his job, said Nourhan, who has since received offers of free doctor consultations and donations.
- Makeshift nappies -
A second page called "Libantroc" was also set up at the end of last year for bartering, and now has 50,000 users.
"The page grew very fast as unemployment increased and increasingly more people found themselves in need," said its founder, Hala Dahrouj.
Some were suddenly forced to sleep in the street and used the page to find shelter or ask for help to pay rent, Dahrouj said.
But although it was started for bartering, today many users simply use it to seek help, said volunteer administrator Carla el-Zoghbi.
"Lots of people have requests but they no longer have anything to swap for it," she said.
The economic crisis has plunged 45 percent of the population into poverty, official estimates say.
Offline too, Chirine Kabbani says she has seen increasingly more people flock to her charity store in recent months.
Her shop, called "Clothes for Eid", started out as a place for families to pick out second-hand outfits for free, but today it also hands out food.
"It's insane how many people have been lining up outside the shop just for some bread," she told AFP.
The toughest thing is seeing people who once used to donate now in need.
"Volunteers who used to give away clothes are now swapping them for food," she said.
Kabbani recounts seeing mothers dressing toddlers in makeshift nappies of material scraps and plastic bags, and others feeding their infants sugar dissolved in water instead of milk.
One day, a woman came in. "She took off her gown and said: 'Here take it. Just give me a packet of nappies.'"
© 2020 AFP