On the Displaced Syrians in Lebanon

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May 24 2014

Yasser al-Zayat *

A few days ago, a campaign on Facebook was launched. It was called the “National Campaign Against Syrian Presence in Lebanon”. And more recently, the “Anti-Racist Campaign in Support of Syrians” succeeded in closing the earlier Facebook page and raising the voice of anti-racism in Lebanon. In the midst of this, many details on the Syrian experiences in Lebanon are lost.

The phrase “Syrian presence” harks back to the era of the Baath mandate on the “brotherly Lebanese region” (1975-2005), when “Syria” was a public enemy in this country. The relations were not perfect between the smaller sibling and the larger one. Since the separation of the Levant, some ninety years ago, the Arab Syria was the Other upon which the myth of Greater Lebanon was created: We aren’t Syrians, not Arabs, not Bedouins… Syria never stopped short of shaking the Lebanese Republic, at times arming the popular Nasserist movements, or supporting the Palestinian resistance fighters who became popular after 1967. However I believe nothing stressed the relationship between the two countries as much as the arrogant militarism that ruled the country for thirty years, for it had fought everyone, humiliated everyone, and controlled the life and death of everyone. It had imprinted on the hearts of the Lebanese a dark and severe image of “Syria”, the Syrian political resident, the military, the spies, the bribes, the soldier who searches through the identification documents, and points with his shoe, while making caravans of cars move across the checkpoints.

Alongside the Syrian mandate’s army was an army of Syrian workers and laborers. They had found work opportunities and a migrant life that was not too bad. The army itself was a tyrant that no one dared speak of, while the army of workers was subject to constant abuse from Lebanese racists. Not only did they face low wages, long work hours, and a lack of social and health insurance, they also faced much arrogance and stereotypes, if not harassment, beatings, and even killings in the worst of times.

I came to Beirut before three years and a bit. Syria here was nothing more than a beggarly [Abu Shahata] military officer, or a blue-collar worker [Sharshuh], and the financier of the Resistance, and Bab Al Hara television series.

Then March 2011 happened. The lines between the many Syrias were starting to get drawn, and the Lebanese slowly got to know them before seeing them in the next few years. Just as the Syrians were surprised by themselves, and got to know about their cities, names, dreams, and voices. The Lebanese themselves were to be surprised by it, as the word “Syrians” came to mean far more than it used to. For the first time they saw the people of Syria in all their diversity: the Syrian opposition, the average Syrian, the Syrian painter, the Syrian who speaks foreign languages without having learned it in Lebanon! And there are many others.

With time, the Syria nicknamed “the Kingdom of Silence” became feudal states of noise, fire, and people escaping the violence. It was written in the fate of Lebanon to go into Syria’s civil war just as it did with its own civil war. It left no strong united Syria, nor a weak fragmented and bloodied Syria.

The Lebanese society has been divided towards the displaced Syrians, and so has the state. The government’s discourse has ranged from support and understanding on the one hand, and rabid fascism on the other, even though the other has received much talking and fuss. Lebanon officially calls the Syrians “displaced”, and refuses to describe them as “refugees”, to avoid the legal implications associated with the term. This was despite the fact that it is the only country that opened its borders to these “displaced Syrians”. However it has not stopped controlling the movement across the border, and searching through the documents of people crossing the borders, and chasing people residing illegally within its borders.

No “refugee camp” grew for the Syrians in Lebanon as was the case for the Palestinians. It doesn’t seem random or a simple time difference, especially considering the not-so-innocent scattering of Syrians in every corner. Neither is the constant words of the United Nations on solving the crisis in the refugee camps and its awaiting a “political decision” that is needed before such a thing may occur. The time approaches for the announcement of the Syrians to consider themselves the largest “sect” in Lebanon, however this new large social group has no large mosque, or a political center that deals with its issues. This adds to the spatial displacement an additional political, economic, social, and psychological displacement.

It is easy in this context to focus on the “bad treatment” that the Syrians of Lebanon face. There is much evidence of that: a nightly curfew in the south, burnings of refugee tents in the north, exploitation of workers everywhere, accusations of theft, rape, and taking over the country at every instance. The security pressure and the constant sectarian terrorizing, as well as hidden sexual exploitation. Schools and clinics turning Syrians away. And of course, we do not forget the statements of Jibran Basil. All of that in-your-face racism that is condemnable does not summarize the entire scene.

Racism in Lebanon is a messed up affair. It is not possible to limit it to the dichotomy of Lebanese-Syrian or even consider it to be one-directional. Rather, it is a complex network of relationships between authority, hatred, and misery among the residents within this society. Of course, we cannot ignore the Asians, Africans, Palestinians, and women from this network. We cannot separate the “elements” from the sects in Lebanon. The taxi driver who will reprimand you because your Syrian compatriots have “ruined the country”, or will curse Hafez al-Assad regardless of your opinion of him, or will apologetically describe to you his Lebanon as a field of a conflict between “Islam” (that is between the Sunni and Shii sects). All those people and their statements do not reflect their racial opinion of Syrians, but rather their sectarian and political affiliations. What entertains in all of this Lebanese confusion is what a person can analyze of the many forms of racism: Maronite racism, Shii racism, Sunni racism, Druze racism. It can be quite an entertaining sociological game, but it remains just that, a game.

What is real is that Lebanon paid a price for the Syrian catastrophe far greater than it could pay. This is a reality that is unfortunately ignored by the narratives of “Racist Lebanon” and “Syria Welcomed the Lebanese in 2006” and “The Syrian is Not Your Enemy”… These narratives do not address the dire reality nor do hollow condemnations of tensions and hatred. The source of the violence and misery must be found and solved using solutions that are deeper than telling people to “love one another”, to be “brotherly”, or to be “ashamed” of hating one another. Just as it won’t help to respond to anti-Syrian racist discourse by a racist discourse that parodies the Lebanese. Lebanon is a country in ruins, and cannot handle anymore. It is no doubt that it would be further pushed to exhaustion by the thousands coming each day. The most of those will not leave through Rafic Hariri International Airport. Despite that, it has offered the Syrians much, and handled much for them. If I were to exaggerate in describing it, considering its size and capabilities and circumstances, it has indeed been the most generous neighboring country to Syrians.

The Syrians in Lebanon are not only homeless and victims of a war, like the refugee clichés present them, or even some of the solidarity clichés. There is a complete Syria in Lebanon now. A society of a million people that parallels the Lebanese society, and shares with it the economy, culture, and worries.

Yes, Syrians escaped from death. And others from the shelling, the hunger, and the homelessness. There are also activists who escaped from arrest, and youth from unemployment, and the luxury-types who escaped the “problems”. And among the Syrians are those who leased out fancy apartments and continued life as usual, just like a person who moves in Damascus from Mezzeh to Al-Malki. And among them are the restaurant owners and fancy brands who opened up branches in their new base, and those moved their money and cars, as well as their children’s schools and their wives’ preferred shopping spots. Among the Syrians are those who rose up a class, or two, or ten, because of the wealthy non-governmental organizations and the prosperous business in relief and media. And among them are those who descended, but still live and struggle within what’s available. Among them are the “new workers” who are different from what lebanon was used to: middle class youth  who have never experienced life abroad, nor the experience of hard jobs that the earlier generation of workers had. Among them are students, writers, directors, musicians, and bar-hoppers. And children that have no stories yet apart from exploring the streets and selling flowers on the street corners.

It is no longer possible for a Lebanese to pour a Syrian into a racist mold, or a stereotype that was bypassed in the last few years. For the narrative that says that “food that is stolen by the Syrian from the Lebanese mouths” is faced with a relative economic boom that was caused by investors, consumers, and renters, and the market that was moved by the new migrants after a tourist recession that was unprecedented. This is despite the dynamics of cultural, journalistic, theatrical, and cinematic interaction between the Syrians and Lebanese, if we didn’t say it was between Syrians and Syrians. All these issues and their effects on the two societies that are squeezed into this tight country are worth studying by sociologists and economists.

The problem the Syrians have with Lebanon, and the problem the Lebanese have with Syrians is the misery that engulfs this fragmented society. And the Syrian catastrophe and the Lebanese racism are both symptoms of that disease. Whereas there is no hope in any political elite, just as there is no hope in any political revolution. The two peoples living in the heart of the Middle East will continue to wait for deliverance, or for the lucky ones, the visa!

* A blogger and a student of sociology based in Beirut.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East