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BEIRUT (AP) — With Beirut’s airport partially reopening from a three-month virus shutdown, the government is hoping thousands of Lebanese expatriates will return for the summer — and bring dollars desperately needed to prop up the crashing economy.

But Lebanon’s far-flung diaspora, renowned as entrepreneurs who for years sent their cash home, may no longer be willing to do that.

Many are staying away, appalled at the ruling elite’s handling of Lebanon’s unprecedented economic and financial meltdown and outraged at local banks holding their dollar deposits hostage. Some have stopped sending money, except small amounts to sustain their families. Others are considering cutting ties completely with a corrupt country they say has robbed them of a future.

“If you’re a Lebanese considering visiting this summer, you will think about bringing only what you need to spend while there, not a single penny more,” said Hassan Fadlallah, who has lived since 1997 in Dubai, where he founded a consultancy agency, Brand Lounge.

“I doubt anyone is thinking about investing in the economy, especially when you know the recipient is not worthy of this help,” he said.

Once a beacon of free market growth and fine living, Lebanon is suffering the worst economic crisis in its modern history. The local currency has lost around 80% of its value against the dollar on the black market since October and continues to tumble daily. Banks have clamped down on withdrawals and transfers of U.S. dollars. Food prices have soared, businesses and households have been thrown into disarray, salaries and savings are fast disappearing and unemployment has surged.

The crisis stems from decades of systematic corruption and mismanagement. Public frustration exploded into street protests in October demanding the entire leadership go. Now, a slide into violence is feared amid mounting poverty and sectarian tensions.

Still, political leaders appear unwilling to act, instead squabbling and trading blame. Talks with the International Monetary Fund over a bailout have faltered over the inability to implement pledges to combat corruption and instill reforms.

For years, millions of Lebanese abroad helped keep their native land afloat by sending remittances that once amounted to 12.5% of GDP.

Lebanese politicians are pleading with them to come to the rescue again. Prime Minister Hassan Diab on Tuesday called on them to “come with dollars.” Christian party leader Samir Geagea suggested each expatriate family abroad to “adopt” a family in Lebanon for $200 a month to stave off hunger. One lawmaker sparked outrage by saying Lebanon is now “cheap” in an attempt to attract expatriates and tourists after the currency collapse.

Visits home are a summer tradition for Lebanon’s expats. The airport, closed since mid-March, starts operating Monday at 10% capacity, welcoming around 2,000 passengers a day.

Nabil Bou Moncef, editor in chief of Lebanon’s An-Nahar newspaper, said he expected very limited numbers of Lebanese to visit, and any dollars they bring will be held onto by relatives like “gold,” rather than being injected into the economy.

“The Lebanese people are being subjected to a systematic and organized theft by the ruling oligarchy and the banks on daily basis,” he said. “No one wants to contribute to this cycle anymore.”

Lebanon, a country of 5 million, takes massive pride in its emigrant community — including the many successful businessmen and celebrities of Lebanese heritage. Famous names among them are Mexican business magnate Carlos Slim, Columbian singer Shakira, Mexican-American actress Salma Hayek, Lebanese-British barrister Amal Clooney and fashion designers Elie Saab and Reem Accra. They also include the disgraced former Nissan-Renault boss Carlos Ghosn, who fled Japan to Lebanon last year.

The diaspora is estimated at about three times the population at home. Large communities are found everywhere, from Australia and Africa to Canada, Latin America and Europe. About 400,000 Lebanese work in oil-rich Gulf countries.

Their billions have helped keep the local economy liquid. The Central Bank has kept the pound stable at 1,507 to the dollar since 1997, thanks to heavy borrowing at high interest rates. That encouraged expats to send money home, buy property and deposit in local banks.

Now the currency has spiraled to around 9,000 to the dollar on the black market. Capital controls have locked up dollars in bank accounts, uniting both rich and poor in anger.

Many in the diaspora have been agonizing on social media how to send money to relatives without going through transfer shops and local banks.

“I am definitely not handing my hard-earned money to our corrupt government on a silver platter so they can perpetuate their corruption,” posted Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor based in Philadelphia.

In a Twitter thread, he lamented how his parents who have invested all their lives in Lebanon are now dependent on their expat son.

“I was on the phone with my parents the other day. My mom hasn’t seen me in over a year, and all she kept saying is, ‘Thank God you left, there is no future here.’ It breaks my heart when their voices break.”

Many now fear a new wave of emigration by Lebanon’s middle class, once the global pandemic subsides and the world’s economy picks up.

TV host Ricardo Karam, who has made a career out of interviewing successful expats, said Lebanon’s talented youth and business elite are prevented from succeeding in their own country.

“Amid this meltdown … I am saddened by the lack of any vision to benefit from this elite,” he posted. “Instead of steering the ship, the rudder has been left to those who will enter the dustbin of history.”

Fadlallah, the Dubai consultancy CEO, said he is still contemplating whether to make his summer family visit to Lebanon. He considers himself lucky — he managed to transfer his savings out of Lebanon in September, right before the crisis began.

He says that after what was effectively a Ponzi scheme, it will take years before people regain confidence in Lebanese banks and institutions, if at all.

“You need faith, credibility and trust for the country to begin recovering,” he said. “They do not exist.”

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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Meet The Han Burger: Husband And Wife Duo Bring Historic Chinese Burgers To Humboldt Park With New Takeout Spot

HUMBOLDT PARK — A new takeout restaurant in Humboldt Park is serving a classic Chinese street food burger with a modern twist.

The Han Burger, which rents a space in the Cloud Kitchens shared commercial kitchen at 3220 W. Grand Ave., has been busy with takeout and delivery orders since it opened in June, said co-owners John and Arami Hackett. 

The restaurant features Chinese burgers with pork belly or beef brisket, slow-cooked for 10 hours in a variety of spices with fresh cilantro, with hot peppers from Taiwan on a traditional “mo” bread bun. 

The Han Solo marinated pork belly burger is the kitchen’s signature item, but the owners recently added a Chicago Han burger, which has giardiniera instead of the spicy peppers, and a Keto Han burger, the original burger without the bun. 

The owners call their concept a “re-imagining” of one of the world’s oldest burgers, a Chinese street food called roujiamo.

“We basically took the essence of roujiamo and added more meat and more bread,” said chef Arami Hackett. “We westernized — or Americanized — it so it’s easier to market to the American population.”

Arami Hackett, who is from Shanghai and moved to Chicago in 2018 with her husband, is excited to bring her culture to the city in a new way. She said the burgers can be customized by adding a fried egg on top, other vegetables or garlic aioli as a sauce. They are also bigger than traditional burgers in China to match American portion sizes, the duo said.

Apart from westernizing the historical burger, Arami Hackett said the aim is to educate people on the classic street food and attract adventurous diners who are eager to try something new. And Chicago is exactly where to find them, she said. 

“It’s the perfect city to introduce the Han Burger,” she said, adding that friends have compared the burgers to an Asian Italian beef sandwich. “I love Chicago and I love Italian beef.” 

John Hackett, who handles the marketing side of the restaurant and helps in the kitchen, said they are excited to bring this type of Chinese cuisine to the Humboldt Park and add to the city’s culinary tradition.

“Chicago is consistently rated the No. 1 food city in the entire country, if not the world, so to be able to introduce something that really hasn’t been introduced here previously — to people who are already very spoiled with their food choices — has been fun,” John Hackett said. 

John Hackett said the coronavirus pandemic presented the perfect opportunity to open up an online restaurant since takeout and food delivery have become popular in the last few months.

The couple is looking at restaurant spaces to offer dine-in service to expand since the community response has been so overwhelming. But for now, John Hackett said Humboldt Par has allowed the Han Burger to reach people from various West and North side neighborhoods. 

“It’s a fun journey for both of us because we actually have an opportunity to educate people [on] this sandwich that has been around over a long period of time and is consistently loved over dynasties and generations,” he said. 

Arami Hackett said when the couple first met in China, they joked about quitting their marketing jobs and opening a restaurant. Now that it’s become a reality for her, she said she is excited about the career switch and is learning things every day. 

“I am not used to being called ‘chef,’” she said. “Twenty-year-old Arami had no idea I’d be a chef and working in my restaurant.”

For now, Han Burger offers only five burgers, but the owners are working on two more: a vegetarian and lamb option. The couple also plans to open a keto kitchen with low-carb, high-fat lunch options called Deeper Purple Kido Kitchen, but they want to grow Han Burger first.

The Hacketts hope their burger dishes can bring happiness to customers during an unsettling time in the world and want to connect with the community through food. 

“I truly believe food can bring joy to people’s lives,” Arami Hackett said. “We want to provide [happiness] in people’s lives.” 

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