New York

‘They Are All Corrupt': New York's Lebanese Diaspora Protests, Supports Revolution Back Home

In Lebanon, severe economic strains have prompted anti-government demonstrations that began more than a week ago

A sea of red, white and green flags filled the crowds of mostly young students and professionals from the Lebanese diaspora in lower Manhattan Thursday night, as the solidarity movement sweeping Lebanon spilled over into the United States.

“We stand with you 5604 miles away,” read one sign at the protest in Washington Square Park. “Noble Lebnan” read another, while chants of the Arabic word "thawra," which means revolution, could be heard in the crowd of peaceful protesters.

The unrest in Lebanon prompted geologist Mirna Zahlan, 45, to drive from her home in New Jersey.

"If they are truly leaders, they will resign," Zahlan, who is from Aley in Lebanon, told NBC News as she carried a large Lebanese flag.

“They are all corrupt. We are done. It’s been 40 years,” she said.

She joined the Washington Square Park protest along with her husband and three children, ages 15, 11 and 9. Another rally took place in Los Angeles this week and a third is planned outside the United Nations in New York on Saturday.

A demonstrator holds a Lebanese flag at the New York City protest.

In Lebanon, severe economic strains have prompted anti-government demonstrations that began a week ago Thursday. Lebanon is heavily in debt and banks have remained closed as protesters spill into the streets, across the sectarian divides that usually dominate.

Protesters have continued to rally despite a new reform package put forth by the government this week that includes lowering government salaries and reducing the budget deficit, according to Reuters.

Among the disappointed Lebanese rallying for more change in Washington Square Park was Australian-Lebanese model Jessica Kahawaty, who attended a meeting with the Lebanese diaspora in New York City ahead of this week’s protests.

Demonstrators expressed solidarity for Lebanon protesters at Washington Square Park.

She said there were approximately 80 people present, some of whom are working to get information from people on the ground in Lebanon and permits for additional protests here in the U.S.

Kahawaty said she shared an outline of problems people in Lebanon are facing on her Instagram page and why they’re demanding reforms.

She said the concerns include “nepotism, corruption, poverty, low wages, air pollution, water pollution, no care for the elderly, no health benefits, poor infrastructure.”

“People are down there as Lebanese as one, so this warms my heart and it makes me so happy and for the first time ever, I have hope for Lebanon,” she said.

The sentiment for change also inspired 26-year-old New York University doctoral student Julien Dirani from Beirut to come out and shout in Arabic, “The people want the resignation of the government.”

It’s a feeling reiterated by other youth in the park like 36-year old consultant Sarah Mahmoud who wore a painted Lebanese flag on her right cheek.

“Corruption has just reached a tipping point,” she said.

Mahmoud said it’s “simply impossible to live normally” and that this is the “first protest that’s not sectarian, just Lebanese.”

For 30-year old Roula Hajjar in New York City, it’s a part of the reason why she spends her time balancing work as a political risk consultant and planning these protests.

Hajjar, who is Lebanese, said as long as she could remember, she’s always been on the streets of Lebanon protesting — since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005 to the waste collection crisis in 2015 following the closure of a landfill.

“We are subject to this government that can’t provide us with the most basic of services,” she said.

It’s what brought her 37-year old sister Ranya, who is a psychotherapist, to the streets of Beirut with her 3-year old son to fight for change.

“I wish and hope that in the future that he lives in a country that is not sectarian and that he gets to experience a peace that we haven’t had unfortunately,” she said over the phone from Beirut.

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