For Lebanese expat and content creator Raymi Naouss, coming home to Lebanon is usually an excuse to go out clubbing and spend time with friends. Back for the first time in two years, last weekend he instead ran barefoot for 43 kilometers to raise money for patients suffering from cancer.
Naouss, who lives in Dubai, was eager to do something for his struggling countrymen who are currently living under one of the worst financial crises in the country's history. But he was unable to travel due to restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19. During that time, the situation of many in Lebanon dramatically changed for the worse, especially for those living with life-threatening illnesses.
“I said, let me try and create something challenging for me,” Naouss told the New Arab. “[My first idea was] I would be walking 100 kilometers; let's say, to Tripoli and back [in] 24 hours or something like that. Then the idea started to grow. I wanted to do something for Lebanon.”
“Being a cancer patient as well, I know the struggle,” he said. “If I can, I would love to help in any way possible.”
Traveling from Dbayeh to Batroun along the coastal highway, Naouss — accompanied by other runners — completed his run in five hours and 30 minutes. By running without footwear, he hopes to inspire others to overcome the obstacles they also face, in addition to raising money for the Lebanese nongovernmental organization Krush Cancer with a Smile.
“I think it represents the Lebanese,” said Naouss. “There are a lot of things that are missed now, that were taken from us, yet we have to keep moving forward. The shoes are the most important thing; that's what people think, [but that] is not true. It doesn't matter if we have to keep moving forward. That's the idea of being barefoot.”
“Whatever we can get, it's a blessing,” said Naouss. “I don't have a certain number. It's amazing to help as many people as possible.”
The Lebanese medical sector in particular has been ravaged by the country’s ongoing liquidity crisis. Many doctors and nurses have left Lebanon to seek a better situation elsewhere, while those remaining are forced to contend with severe material shortages, power blackouts, and a rapidly rising cost of treatment and medications. Several major hospitals were also destroyed during the Aug. 4 Beirut port explosion in 2020.
For many patients, particularly those who can no longer afford to pay for private medical insurance, it has become almost impossible to get the help they need. This is because Lebanon imports most of its medical equipment from other countries, making purchases in US dollars at a time when almost 80% of the population is living in poverty.
“I don't know how to describe how awful the situation is,” said Charif Kaiss, founder of Crush Kancer with a Smile. “I see it as a humanitarian crisis [and] a crime against humanity. The government is leaving people to die without doing anything about it.”
“The problem with cancer is that medications are so expensive,” he explained. “To treat one patient alone, you are talking about tens of thousands of dollars. I had blood cancer in 2015. My treatment alone was close to $600,000, and [I] had an insurance company that covered me. Otherwise, I don't know if I would have survived.”
Inspired by his own experience, Kaiss created Crush Kancer with a Smile in 2015 to provide emotional support to patients and help bring much-needed medicines into Lebanon. This process can be extremely difficult even in the best of times due to different rules and regulations between countries.
“European countries don't give you medication without a prescription from a doctor from their country,” said Kaiss. “We try to find countries in which you don't have to follow such an obligation. For example, in Turkey, you can buy from the pharmacy without providing any prescription for most medications, [and they] are less expensive than in Europe.”
“What makes me sick is that medications in Lebanon, if we find them, are more expensive than medications outside,” he said. “At a time when we need to help each other, there are people here that are taking advantage of this situation to make a business out of it.”
Lebanon faces an uncertain future, with many having lost faith in the leaders and institutions that have continuously failed them over the years, especially recently. For them, the failures and shortcomings within the country’s medical sector are just another symptom of a much larger problem.
Instead, Naouss chooses to place his faith in the legendary endurance and generosity of the Lebanese people.
“It saddens me, of course, but I think it also motivates me. You can look at a disaster and say, ‘Alright, that's it.’ Or you can say, ‘How can we solve it?’ You can look at your situation and see your strengths [and] weaknesses. In Lebanon, you have amazing people who are willing to help each other, so we're going to build on this and we're going to make it work.”
“What Raymi is doing is spreading inspiration,” said Kaiss. “He is planting a seed in people's minds that that one individual can make a difference.”