The man is kicked, slapped and beaten by men speaking with Lebanese accents and cursed repeatedly until he pledges allegiance to Lebanon’s army. (Flagged for violence: click ‘watch on Facebook’ to view)
Tfih. I randomly received this on whatsapp and had the sudden urge to share it! What the fuck's going on in this…
Acts of violence, particularly against Syrians, are not new in Lebanon. The most infamous is that of parents coaching a child to beat a defenseless Syrian boy. First with his hands:
And then with a stick:
Even more disturbing is a video of a man threatening to butcher Syrian children with a knife as he waives it in front of them.
“Which one of you should I behead first,” the man tells the crying children.
The story was covered by The Daily Mail, which reported the man had been arrested. Police also said they opened in investigation into the video of the family encouraging the child to hit the Syrian boy, according to a report by Al Jazeera.
But it is unclear what happened to those arrested or investigated and if anyone was held accountable in other cases, such as the beating of this boy:
Meanwhile the Lebanese army has said it will open an investigation into the deaths of four Syrians killed during recent operations against Syrian militants in Arsal. Middle East Eye reported the bodies showed signs of torture.
As a response to much of this violence, a protest was recently held in Beirut to demand basic rights for Syrian refugees. However, some Lebanese media and web personalities reacted angrily, claiming the protestors organized to attack the military, and many have offered jingoistic responses:
But no evidence of protestors attacking the military has been provided. What we have seen is a recent surge in videos of Syrians cursing Lebanese on Facebook.
Many Lebanese were enraged by the videos and feel that Syrians should be grateful for the hospitality. Indeed, Lebanon has hosted far more refugees than any country in the world as a percentage of its population, exceeding European countries allowance of refugees by thousands of percent. The US and European countries have taken in shamefully low numbers of refugees compared to Lebanon and attacks have occurred against refugees there as well, perhaps in even greater numbers.
But none of this excuses the acts of brutality we have been seeing. And chances are, far more abuse is happening than is being recorded on camera.
It is true that many Lebanese have suffered a history of violence from Syrian occupation forces during the civil war and many Lebanese were tortured in Syrian prisons. But let us not repeat the abuses that were caused against us. Let us not repeat the abuses brought against Lebanese civilians and children by Western, Israeli and other Arab forces, even local militias, infamous for their torture and massacres.
If crimes can be justified against one person or group, they can be justified against anyone. We have already seen Lebanese face the brutality of their own security forces during protests of recent years and the government has even banned protests as a whole, including protests by Lebanese citizens who are enduring unprecedented levels of corruption.
It is also true that Lebanon’s army has endured some of the toughest battles of its history while defending territory on its borders with Syria and many young soldiers and senior officers have been killed in those battles.
To truly support Lebanon’s army and the integrity of the institutions they seek to defend, the basic human dignity of all persons in the country should be respected and protected, no matter what their nationality or ethnicity. For the sake of Lebanon’s own safety and the relative freedoms citizens still enjoy, all police and military investigations should be closely monitored and the right to free expression and police accountablity needs to be demanded vigilantly and constantly.
UPDATE (19 July 2017)
Not long after this post, Lebanon’s Interior Ministry Nouhad Machnouk announced on Twitter that the assailants in the first video have been arrested. However the extent to which they will be prosecuted remains unclear.
Once again, winter is approaching and Lebanon not only faces the environmental disaster of garbage soaking into the groundwater, but yet another harsh season for hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees living in tents with no floors or walls to keep the floods and snowstorms out.
It has been almost two years since I last reported from the Bekaa valley camps of Jeb Janine and sadly little has improved for their downtrodden residents since then. A few weeks ago, before the heavy downpour of last night, I traveled back to the camp with a group of journalists.
Here are some of the stories we heard.
Fawza al Hassan, pictured above with her two little daughters, showed us the bloated stomach and eye problems the 7-year-old girls face. Fawza says she hasn’t been able to get them medical care and cannot even secure her own tent or steady source of food. She relies on the generosity of neighbors for shelter and a bit of rice.
Thuraya Ahmed Hamoud from Aleppo (above) says she has not received any aid from the UN for over six months. Her husband cannot help because has been jailed for a year now for not renewing his visa. He avoided renewing it out of fear that authorities would deport him, she says. In addition to the baby on the floor behind her, Thuraya has eight other children to feed, ranging from six months to 16 years old. “I don’t want anything, just food for my children,” she says. Like Fawza, Thuraya is also relying on handouts from impoverished neighbors. “We mainly eat potatoes, sometimes we rice,” she explains. “We have not eaten meat for a year. We have no clothes for winter.”
Hassan–I won’t include his last name for fear of reprisals– told my colleague Ahmed Shihab-ElDin (below) that he tried to work in sorting garbage from the nearby town of Jeb Janine for recylcing but town authorities stopped the operation due to “lack of having a permit.” (Amazing considering how desperately recycling is needed in the Bekaa and across Lebanon). Thus with little employment for the men, he said the women of the camp are often bread-winners, picking onions in nearby farms from 3AM to 4PM for just four dollars per day.
Adding insult to abject poverty, Lebanese army soldiers often raid and harass camp residents by barging through doors in the middle of the night demanding to see IDs, Hassan says. He says troops even broke into his bedroom while he was sleeping next to his wife. But despite all this, Hassan was happy to share stories with us and offered cigarettes and tea.
The claims of abuse I heard are similar to accounts documented in a recent Vice piece by fellow journalist Sulome Anderson, who wrote of Lebanese police destroying shacks in a camp. (See the link for a video). These claims are heard often and we know that there has been attacks on refugees in the past, from assualts to burning of camps. Is the Lebanese judiciary even interested in investigating these cases? What rights do the refugees have under Lebanese law and would they even feel confident voicing harassment they face?
Following her piece Sulome started a crowd-funding campaign to help rehouse some of the refugees. You can read more about it and contribute here. But hurry, there are only a few days left.
I think it’s great to see an increasing number of journalists going beyond simply reporting on tragedy to actually trying to help those whose stories we tell by providing mechanisms of material support. In fact a lot of refugees are sick of talking to journalists because they don’t see news articles improving their lives.
Other examples include Inara, an NGO that helps injured children in war zones, founded by CNN reporter Arwa Damon. Two of my other colleagues, Brooke Anderson and Venetia Rainey, also started a crowd-funding campaign to help support a Syrian refugee school they had reported on.
Finally my colleague Jenny Gustafsson has compiled a list of organizations you can also donate to. If you can spare a few dollars, that money could go a long way to supporting those who are so desperately in need, especially as temperatures drop.
I’ll leave you with some more pictures I took at the camp. You can imagine how little cold these structures keep out. Remember this is just one of hundreds of camps scattered across the country.
Local broadcaster LBC chose to air a split-screen live shot today of the Charlie Hebdo rally in Paris (left) and a a man hugging a coffin in Tripoli (right), where at least 9 were reportedly killed by a suicide attack at a cafe yesterday.
In both cases, the attackers are believed to be linked to armed militant groups fighting in Syria. In both cases, people going about their daily business were targeted. But in Paris, this is being framed as an attack on humanity and free speech. In Lebanon, it is viewed simply as part of the war next door. In Paris, a million people came out in support. In Beirut, the streets have been relatively quiet.
Why are the two attacks treated so differently? Are those sipping their coffee in Lebanon less important than the cartoonists in France? Where was the world media attention? Where was the analysis? Where were the pundits clamoring for freedom of speech? Why did they not also demand freedom of movement for the people of Tripoli, freedom to have coffee and conversation? Are these lesser freedoms?
Or is it only newsworthy when Muslims attack Christians and Jews? Is it not newsworthy when Muslims attack Muslims?
Finally, how is it that a news channel in a tiny country can spare some grief for an attack in a much larger country, yet so little reciprocal coverage was offered to the Lebanese people who faced a proportionally greater attack on the same day?
Today I spoke to the BBC World Service about the worsening refugee crisis in Lebanon and the government’s controversial decision to begin strictly limiting the thousands of souls pouring over the country’s borders everyday. (You can listen here) Many have found the move to be inhumane, but at the same time, no country has received anywhere near as many Syrian refugees as Lebanon– which at 1.6 million Syrians in a country of 4 million– is nearing a 50 percent population influx and the highest refugee per capita ratio in the world. The country’s broken institutions, still reeling from its own civil war, simply lack the capacity to handle the crisis and I’m surprised they have not collapsed already. Can you imagine if the US received over 100 million refugees?
Last year I wrote a piece documenting the minuscule amount of aid Lebanon’s institutions have received from the international community to cope what the World Bank has called the greatest refugee crisis in humanity. More recently it was reported that the government received $10 million, which is not even 1 percent of its $1.6 billion aid appeal. Compared to Lebanon, Europe and the US have accepted less than 1 percent of the refugees Lebanon has housed, and this has put a massive strain on hospitals, schools and public utilities.
But despite all this, the BBC anchor asked me if there was anything more Lebanon could do, other than wait for aid money. I remembered that I had put the same question to Ramzi Naaman, the head of Lebanon’s anti-poverty unit, in writing my investigative piece last year. He had an interesting suggestion. He began by saying the aid money going toward refugees has caused some tension with poor Lebanese communities who realized they were getting less help from their government than the UN is providing to refugees. His solution: Get big Lebanese banks, with over $100 billion in deposits, to begin building much-needed national infrastructure projects that could employ both poor Syrians and Lebanese, and perhaps help build some sense of national unity despite the crisis. I wonder what some of you think? I will republish the excerpt from the piece here:
“The people of Akkar may have thought living in extreme poverty was a way of life, but then the Syrians came in and were being assisted immediately with cash, food, shelter and healthcare. And then a person in Akkar may be thinking ’my government was not giving me the right things.’ And when the crisis is over and Syrians are out, he may say, ’I want water, I want health care, I want services, I want infrastructure. I want to change the way I live.’ “So this crisis has not only impacted us in terms of pressures, it has also somehow helped emerge a lot of our problems that have historically existed,” Naaman says.
Instead of just waiting for money from foreign donors, there may also an opportunity for the private sector to get involved. Lebanese companies could chip in to make job-creating projects happen, particularly the country’s banks, awash with over $120 billion in deposits, or nearly three times Lebanon’s GDP. With the right political leadership, such projects could be tax deductible and provide work for both Syrians and Lebanese, which could help defuse tensions, Naaman said.
“Everyone keeps bragging about their corporate social responsibility,” he says. “So let’s say to every bank, okay we need to put $100,000 in that pot or maybe $200,000 to create a fund to help the Lebanese host communities, to develop a project in those communities.”
The projects could be used to help promote banks, and, with enough media exposure, initial donations could encourage other banks and corporations to match their competitors, he said.
“You want to contribute to the development and stability of your country, this is it,” Naaman says. “Take the initiative and use the media.”
The effect could turn a crisis into an opportunity for long-term development and national reconciliation, Naaman explains.
“You give an example of solidarity among the Lebanese,” he says. “The only way to overcome confessionalism is to to open up, so how about setting up this humanitarian issue, that would set an example. Social solidarity is the foundation of a nationalistic attitude, belonging to a country, not a sect.”
Local channel LBC ran this brilliant five minute interview with an unidentified man on the street in Tripoli. His language and delivery is powerful in Arabic, but I thought I would do a rush translation into English, particularly for a lot of the foreign press who continue to focus on “Islamic extremism” instead of gripping poverty as a major cause of violence in the city. In fact the media, both local and international, frequently frame recent clashes in Tripoli as part of “spillover” from the Syrian war and potential ties to armed Islamist groups operating across the border. Yet what many seem to forget is that intense clashes have been ongoing in Tripoli well before the Syrian war, as early as 1990s.
The man in the video– a resident of Bab Al Tabbaneh (one of Tripoli’s poorest and most violent neighborhoods)– helps us understand why.
He begins by questioning Saad Hariri, former prime minister and one of the richest and most powerful politicians in Tripoli. He then takes aim at the members of parliament, whom he accuses of having a major role in stoking the violence in order to pass the recent “emergency” legislation that cancelled parliamentary elections and extended their terms in office. Their excuse was the ongoing instability related to the war in Syria. Needless to say, our man in Tabbaneh doesn’t buy it. Pay close attention to how he characterizes the vulnerabilities of both the impoverished youth and the ill-equipped military, especially in the closing lines.
Rush translation. Bold added for emphasis.
Man: The whole country is zifit (tar) (i.e. disgusting/worthless) the politicians, the government, the parliament, all tar, even the presidency, because we have no president.
Where is the public works, where is the security? Where is Saad Hariri?
He is sitting in Saudi Arabia. He sends billions to the army. Instead, why doesn’t he employ the young men sitting without work?
Today, if the young boys are working, no one will think about carrying weapons. But if they are unemployed, anyone can come and manipulate them to get armed and start a terrorist organization.
I have six children, I can’t even afford diapers.
Man 2: People are scared to come into our neighborhood
Man 1:There is work to be done in this country, but the members of parliament are sitting in their houses, they don’t care, they are well fed, they’re children are well feed, they are comfortable, they sleep comfortably. And then they get up and give a speech to ignite the whole neighborhood fighting and no one does anything about it.
One (militant group) goes down, another will come in its place.
There is no security in this country, nothing. People need to work, to get back to work.
There is poverty here, there is poverty in the country. It’s a shame. How many MPs do we have? If everyone gave a quarter of his earnings we could fix up the whole city.
The MPs are making 11 million lira ($7,300) per month, they are people, families more important than them, they can’t even make 1,000 lira (60 cents) and you want to extend your term too? Go home and take care of yourself, curse every MP in this country. The biggest MP in this country is (bleeped expletive)!
Man 2: We don’t vote for any of them and they are the ones that got us fighting with the army
Man 1:Who do you think the army is? Everyone knows that this solider standing behind us is either my brother or my cousin or my neighbor’s son. You think I want to go kill him?
It’s the politicians, look what they pass under the table. First they extend their mandate, then they don’t elect a president and then what? We are paying the prices and they are padding their pockets. Leave us alone already, do they have no mercy?
They tore up all of Tripoli just to pass the laws to extend parliament. Go extend yourself, just leave us alone to work.
Reporter: So what your saying is deprivation is the cause of what’s happening in Tripoli?
The people of Tabbaneh are good people, they are poor people. They have the wrong impression about us. The people of Tabbaneh are a poor people.
When we knock on the politicians, they never answer, people come begging them for help like dogs but they can’t provide anything. They are all crooks, each one of them!
$3 billion was sent to the army, for what? To kill people? Use the money to employ people. Make a tissue factory, you’ll employ 1,000 people. Where are they? Just terrorism?
Where is the terrorism? Go to any street in Tripoli, where is the terrorism? No one will bother you. If you wear a Bikini no one will attack you. Where is the terrorism?
Reporter: But what about the issue of backwardness. They say there is extremism in Tripoli?
It’s the politicians! They made a world war in Tripoli just to extend their terms. These bastards call themselves representatives of the people, they are only representatives of themselves, just to collect their salaries at the end of every month. They are the ones that created this.
I mean it takes just 10 armed men to destroy the country. They attack the army and they shoot at the army.
How hard is it to get information from the Lebanese government? The answer may surprise you. I discuss my adventure with the finance ministry in my recent column for Bold Magazine.
Lebanon By The Numbers
By Habib Battah
It seemed a straightforward question: How much money has the Lebanese government received in Syria-related aid donations? But when I asked the Prime Minister’s advisor at his lavish office in the Grand Serail, he lifted his hands. “It’s a very small number. It’s nothing. I don’t have it,” he said, looking at me as if the matter was inconsequential.
At the time, the Lebanese government had been on a world tour to lobby for funds to cope with the world’s largest refugee crisis, arguing that it had received a pittance in aid money. I was writing a piece about it and thought, in order to make that argument effectively, wouldn’t it be helpful to specify exactly how much has been given, to underscore the wide gap between that tiny figure and the amount that was actually needed?
I emailed the advisor twice after our interview and he could still not produce an answer, referring me instead to the Finance Ministry. So days later, I put in a call there – well, several calls – until I was told I would need to make an information request. Naturally, the bureaucrat told me requests could only be made in writing, and by this she meant typed and delivered in person, not signed and scanned, not emailed, not faxed, not any means convenient or rational. So half an hour of walking later – thank God I live in Beirut – I arrived at the Finance Ministry with a typed up piece of paper stating my simple one line question, who I was writing for and why I wanted to know.
I approached the office of the “responsible person,” a middle-aged man, who was flanked by two similarly aged women. He smiled wryly at my request. “You were living abroad?” I affirmed, but asked how that was relevant to obtaining the information. “If you can, go back there. Lebanon is like Angola,” he exclaimed with a chuckle. I smiled and asked one of his female co-workers if they had dealt with journalists often. “You are the first one I have seen here,” she said soberly.
Later I visited the office of the bureaucrat I had dealt with over the phone to see if I could hurry matters along as I was on a deadline. She told me the request would take “some time” as it, like all press inquiries, had to be approved by the minister. But surprisingly she said I could have a look at the figure in the meantime, though I could not quote her. She pulled out a spartan spreadsheet of what seemed to be accounts receivable, with only a few entries. She did a few quick calculations, and figured total donations to the state amounted to around $2.8 million, an astoundingly tiny sum, which would amount to less than 0.1 percent of Lebanon’s total aid appeal. Why was this figure so hard to obtain?
I called and emailed the same bureaucrat several times over the following two weeks, but my request was never answered. Eventually I was forced to use the unofficial figure, labeling it as a “government estimate.” A couple of weeks after the piece was published -nearly a month after my initial request was made – I received a phone call from a ministry employee. The figure I had requested was ready, she said nonchalantly. It was close to $2 million or $1million less than the previous figure. But who was counting.
Clearly accuracy or transparency were not a priority among the myriad of officials I had dealt with. This meant I would miss my deadline and that the public would not have access to relevant national data illustrating the daunting challenge the country and its institutions faced.
Yet I was also surprised by the lack of reporters that had requested documents from the Ministry of Finance (perhaps the most important of all ministries), according to the staff I met. The bureaucracy may be stifling but negotiating it is part of what journalism is there for. Who else is going to have time to pace government hallways, make phone calls relentlessly, and ultimately put pressure on authorities?
Sadly, many reporters and activists often assume that if the information is not forthcoming it simply does not exist or, worse still, is not worth pursuing. It is almost as if we are conditioned not to ask, not to bother, to accept evasive answers, sigh and call it a day, so to speak.
But what many may not realize is that non-answers are also a type of answer; that they are also responses worthy of being recorded and disseminated to the public. I have written entire articles based on non-answers, from pollution on Lebanese beaches, to a lack of budget or website for Municipality of Beirut, to top internet officials who refused to discuss their roles in one of the world’s worst connections. In many of these cases, the desire to remain evasive produced flustered, if not comical answers that cast even more doubt on the competency of those in power. “No comment” should send up a red flag for any dedicated journalist: keep digging.
Increasingly, concerned citizens are not waiting for journalists to do their jobs. Every year, new activist groups are born, composed of both young and older individuals willing to sacrifice time and effort to dig through archives, take screenshots from Google Earth, conceal hidden cameras, pore through archaic legal codes to document illegal seizure of public properties, racism at beach resorts, grounds for civil marriage, among many other issues. One group is even now looking into resurrecting a 1920s era law that allows citizens to launch complaints with Parliament, though it has rarely ever been used before.
The internet and social media have helped create momentum like never before, even in a place that seems as feudalistic or complacent as Lebanon’s public sector. As a result, today it is easier for anyone to get involved and to pressure both news outlets and officials to work harder to come up with the answers that citizens deserve.
This column originally appeared in the July issue of Bold Magazine.
In a story going viral on social media, John McCain is supposedly pictured with members of the extremist armed group ISIS, which everyone from Obama to Hezbollah is now calling the worst terrorists on earth.
But the guy on the right is actually Mouaz Moustafa the executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. When I posted the article above on Facebook, he had this to say:
It’s so upsetting to keep seeing this photo among other photos calling me and the guys in the picture ISIS.
1-ISIS killed some of those in the picture. 2-I wear a kuffyiah because I’m Palestinian and take it with me everywhere. 3-ISIS killed two of my staff a 24 yr old and a 29 yr old because they work with me and my organization they were both Sunni Arabs one spoke 5 languages, ISIS called them as they consider me apostates
3-those in the picture are Free Syria Army from a battalion called northern storm extreme enemies of ISIS
4- please be informed before sharing complete BS
I usually don’t reply because it’s not worth my time but I just wanted to let you all know that these are complete fabrications. Thanks guys for listening…
But a perusal 29-year-old Mouaz’s Facebook page reveals he may be up to some shady activity. Like wearing hoodies and Palestine garments:
And posing with endangered species:
For a full debunk of the ISIS photo see this article.
And here’s an interview with Mouaz, who is based in DC, talking about the McCain meeting on CNN
Now does all this mean the US and its allies have nothing to do with ISIS or did nothing to provoke the circumstances–military and financial–that led to its rise? Of course not. But the haphazard demonization of ISIS by some of its staunchest foes may also be contributing to their fear-mongering and sometimes convenient prominence.
Special thanks to my great friend (and fellow journalist you should follow) Reem Akkad for introducing me to Mouaz over Facebook. See, social media does work… sometimes.
Here is a copy of my article and photo-essay for this month’s Al Jazeera’s digital magazine, available for free on iTunes.
People have long fled into and out of Lebanon but the latest refugee surge from neighboring Syria is placing a growing strain on the country’s already troubled institutions.
By Habib Battah
He grew up in a Damascus slum, but now Osama feels he led a life of privilege in Syria. The 32 year old earned enough money as construction worker to afford a modest two-room apartment for his a wife and two infant daughters. But tonight his small family sleeps on the floor, using an old JVC advertising banner as shelter, held together by worn planks of wood.
Osama’s ramshackle new home is crammed into a garbage strewn dirt lot with some 65 other tents in Ain El Helweh, near the port town of Sidon in South Lebanon. Around 400 Palestinians share two filthy outdoor bathrooms in the dusty space, which is about half the size of a soccer pitch. There are no showers and children are getting sick with diarrhea and fever.
Osama and the other young fathers say they cannot find work and are forced to feed their families half rotten vegetables, recovered from the garbage of a nearby market. Then there are the rats.
“Even dogs are afraid of them,” says Mohammed, 29, who lives in a neighboring shack and described frequent night battles between street dogs and the giant rodents. One bit a child last week he added. “He almost ate him.”
One of two bathrooms serving 80 Palestinian refugee families from Syria at Ain El Hilwe. The children are getting sick with fever and diarrhea.
The surrounding urban sprawl is no picnic either. Notorious for its militias, Ain El Helweh is one of the most violent and impoverished neighborhoods in Lebanon. It was set up on farmland to “temporarily” house Palestinians escaping the 1948 war. In the intervening decades, those tents have been replaced by breeze block homes cut by narrow alleys that are the site of frequent gun fights involving Palestinian factions and the Lebanese army. It is this lawless evolution of Ain Al Hilweh that has discouraged the Lebanese government from setting up new camps to house over one million Syrians that have poured over the country’s borders in the last two years.
But Osama and his new neighbors are not even included in these daunting statistics simply because they were born Palestinian. They hail from Yarmouk, a ghetto of Damascus, which like Ayn El Hilwe, was set up to house the 1948 refugees from Palestine. Indeed, as the world focuses on the 2 million refugees created by the current war in Syria, the region is still struggling to cope with second and third generation of Palestinian refugees, who now number about 5 million, with many living in Lebanon.
Trembling with anger, this camp resident said: “Everyday journalists like you come here–three to four per day–but nothing changes.
60 tents have been crammed into a dirt field in Ain El Hilwe, which was set up in 1948 to “temporarily” house refugees escaping from Palestine.
Well before the fighting in Syria began, Lebanon already hosted 450,000 Palestinian refugees inhabiting a dozen squalid city-slums like Ain El Hilweh across the country. Now these Lebanon-based “camps” are swelling even further with some 45,000 new Palestinian arrivals as Syrian camps like Yarmouk have become battlefields between government and opposition forces.
“We lived like kings in Syria compared to this,” Osama says, lamenting the loss of his home and the outdoor conditions his daughters must now endure. As the rainy season begins, many worry their new shacks will be washed away as well. Osama scratches his arms full of insect bites and complains there is no medicine. “We are dying in this camp.”
The misery of new Palestinian refugees represents just a small fraction of the crisis looming before Lebanon, a war-torn country itself, which cannot even provide a constant supply of electricity or water to its own citizens, many of whom live in poverty. Tens of thousands of Lebanese are refugees themselves, having fled savage shelling of their villages during the 1970s and 1980s to squat on private properties or erect ramshackle structures. Many are still awaiting government compensation from the more recent Israeli airstrikes of 2006, when thousands lost their homes after more than a million cluster bombs were dropped across the country.
Meanwhile as new arrivals push the Palestinian refugee population toward 500,000, the government estimates 1.2 million Syrians have crossed the border, with 3,000 new arrivals every day. This means non-Lebanese refugees may soon account for an almost 50 percent increase in Lebanon’s total population of 4 million, putting an enormous strain on already dysfunctional local institutions.
Despite the government’s reluctance to sanction camps for Syrians, “informal” tent cities have sprouted up on farmlands across the country, some hosting up to 1,000 refugees. In many rural Lebanese towns, Syrians already outnumber locals.
close up below:
The Bekaa Valley is dotted with informal tent settlements, which often outnumber nearby local villages.
Over the peaks of Mount Lebanon, about 50 kilometers east of Ain El Hilweh camp, lie the green fields of the Bekaa valley, home to over 200,000 Syrian refugees or about 30 percent of the province’s entire population. Driving past the lush stretches of wheat and herb crops, the landscape is dotted with such informal tent settlements, made of sticks and discarded billboards.
In the quiet West Bekaa town of Jeb Janine, the public school is now dominated by Syrian students, according to principal Abdel Rahim Shamseddine. Out of 323 pupils, only 150 are Lebanese, he says.
That there was space for so many new students is a testament the vast exodus Jib Janeen has witnessed over the last several decades as many of its residents have fled to South America due to war or a lack of jobs.
Days before the start of the fall semester, Shamseddine receives a steady stream of parents, trying to enroll. He tries to accommodate them but says the school has reached capacity: “There’s no more room,” he explains.
Even for those that can get in, there are bureaucratic problems. Sana, a 45-year-old widow from Homs tries to enroll her son in the 9th grade, but cannot produce transcripts from previous years and is told she will have to enroll her son in 7th grade instead.
“What if my town is burned” she pleads with Shamseddine. “Who is going to remember to bring school transcripts when we left our clothes behind?”
In rural Jeb Janine, most students at the local school are Syrian. But some are turned away because they cannot produce transcripts.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says it has pressed the Lebanese government to forgive transcript requirements for Syrian students but the message has not reached Shamseddine, who says he is only following orders from the Ministry of Education. He tells Sana her son may enroll, but it will be a wasted year because he won’t earn credit. Then there is the curriculum. While Syrian public schools are entirely Arabic-based, Lebanese schools teach mathematics and sciences in English or French.
Still Sana, who has been living in a car garage with her three children, is one of the lucky ones. Some 300,000 Syrian children will need education this year but accommodating all of them would mean a doubling in the size of the Lebanese public school system. The state cannot afford such a massive expansion project and thus has only been able to push current capacity to the limit by accepting 34,000 Syrian students.
Yet a few blocks away from the school, around 1,000 Syrians living in tents on a patch of farmland, have priorities other than education. Like the Ayn El HIlwe lot, most of the shelters here will likely be flooded during the first rains. And with little to no work, the families depend on monthly food vouchers from the UNHCR worth $27 per person. But due to a lack of donations, the agency has begun to make drastic cuts to the amount of aid it distributes, ending voucher support for some 35 percent of families starting this month.
Around 1,000 refugees live in Jeb Janine’s informal settlement. Most children will not be able to attend school, but there are other priorities.
The UNHCR has asked for $1.2 billion to fund its operation in Lebanon, but has received just 38 percent of that goal. According to a report this month by Oxfam, the main weapon’s suppliers in Syria including Qatar and Russia, have provided just 3 percent of their fair share of the UN’s humanitarian appeal. France and the United States meanwhile have delivered only around half of their respective shares, the report said.
Among those cut off from aid in the Jib Janeen camp is 18-year-old Abir Ali Faisal who fled her hometown of Rakka. She has 10-month old daughter and only enough food to last 15 more days, she says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
On the other hand, 23-year-old Zahira Hillal says she applied for UNHCR food vouchers a month ago but has not yet received any help. Her family of five have been surviving on potatoes, given as payment to her husband who works at a nearby farm. She cannot afford milk for her 7 month old child who stares blankly with an mouth open. Hillal opens the flap of her tent to reveal a barren concrete slab half covered by a straw mat.
“We have no sheets or blankets,” she pleads. “At night we are dying from the cold.”
To make matters worse, Hillal says her tent is one borrowed from another family that will return to claim it in the coming weeks.
23-year-old Zahra (left) says her family is surviving on potatoes. She says they have received no aid or blankets.
Meanwhile, down the dirt path that cuts through the camp– and will most certainly turn into a mudslide this winter– is 60-year-old Mariam and her 16-year-old son. Mariam suffers from seizures but also says she has not received any assistance since arriving in the camp four months ago. Like many others, she depends on neighbors to provide food. But when pressed by an aid worker, Mariam admits she has not registered with the UNHCR. It’s unclear why the neighbors whom she depends on have not alerted her to the process.
60-year-old Miriam suffers from seizures and has not applied for aid. She and her 16-year-old son share food with neighbors.
18-year-old Abir is among 30 percent of refugees who have been cut off from aid by the UNHCR due to lack of funding. She doesn’t know how she will feed her 10-month-old daughter.
Back in Beirut at UNHCR’s bustling offices in a converted apartment building, Communication officer Roberta Russo says the agency is doing its best with the limited resources it has. She acknowledges that voucher distribution takes about a month from registration but says families simply cannot receive aid until they have registered. She concedes that some fear registration or are illiterate, but maintains that all families crossing the border receive information pamphlets. Those that were cut off from aid can appeal the decision, she says.
As for the winter preparations, Russo says the UNHCR will be distributing plastic sheets. But it’s hard to imagine how this will protect against the torrential Mediterranean storms that bear down on the country, flooding even the paved streets of Beirut.
In addition funding gaps, Russo says the agency’s efforts are hindered by lack of centralization with aid workers stretched out over 380 informal settlements across the country, up from just 76 settlements at the beginning of this year. And while the agency prefers that refugees integrate into host populations, distribution is becoming costly and thus the UNHCR is currently lobbying the Lebanese government for allow “transit settlements,” a more diplomatic term for official refugee camps.
Some families in the Bekaa say they are surviving on water and potatoes; others eat half rotten foods.
To help relieve the pressure on the state, the UN is asking donors to help build infrastructure, that will benefit the local population. In addition to schools, healthcare is also at risk, with most public hospitals operating at full capacity and few beds left, even for Lebanese patients.
“There is no place to put people,” Russo says.
Unsurprisingly social pressure is mounting. Many Lebanese have opened their doors to refugees, sheltering some 36,000 for free at their houses and properties, according to UN figures. Thousands more are being housed in abandoned buildings or spare rooms in exchange for home improvements or rent subsidized by aid organizations, most of whom are Lebanese. But two years into the crisis there is growing unease about such a large refugee population, expanding at such an astonishing rate and with no end in sight.
“Lebanese people have been extremely generous and welcoming, but after two years we are seeing a little bit of tension,” Russo admits.
Local television is rife with stories of Syrians hurting the economy, alleging that some are establishing business without paying taxes or taking jobs from Lebanese by accepting lower wages.
By 2014, the Lebanese government estimates 320,000 Lebanese will become unemployed due to cheaper Syrian labor. This will send 170,000 nationals into poverty, where a quarter of Lebanon’s population already lives, says Ramzi Namaan, an advisor to the Lebanese prime minister on the humanitarian crisis. He says the Lebanese government is in urgent need of job-creating projects but has yet to receive any direct assistance despite donor pledges.
A local Bekaa market is dominated by Syrian businesses. Government officials warn that cheap Syrian labor will put put tens of thousands of Lebanese out of work.
Meanwhile the fast-growing Syrian population already comprises 50 percent of some 1,500 Lebanese villages or localities he says.
“My worry is that tension is building up.”
In the small southern town of Lebaa, locals recently held a street protest against plans to convert an abandoned school into a shelter. “We already have 50 families living here,” a priest told the cameras. “We cannot handle any more.”
Fueling suspicions, a handful of Syrians have been been implicated in the string of car bombings in Lebanon this year, allegedly working for or against regime allies in the country. In September, an explosive device killed a Syrian tennant from Idlib at a flat he was renting in the coastal town of Hallat. Though the blast is still under investigation, some locals assumed he was preparing a bomb.
“We don’t want them here anymore,” a middle-aged resident told Future News in a reference to the 2,000 Syrians living in the town. “Neither the good ones nor the bad ones.” In other villages, curfews have reportedly been imposed on Syrians, enforced by vigilante groups.
See full news report here:
At the school in rural Jeb Janine, principal Shamseddine says a TV crew visiting from a pan-Arab news network encouraged the Syrian students to chant anti-regime slogans. He promptly asked them to leave knowing that many in the Bekaa region have long supported the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which has been tied to the Assad dynasty for decades.
Shamseddine says he is trying to reduce tensions by minimizing the number of flags at school, even taking down Lebanese flags as well as banning all talk of politics on campus. At the same time, there is hope that many of the children are getting along with their new Syrian classmates.
“When you put the ball on the playground, everyone becomes friends.”
But the refugees are also frustrated. With the cutting off of aid money and the onset of winter storms, camp conditions are likely to worsen.
Many of the tents are made up of canvas and cardboard picked out of the garbage and will undoubtedly wash away during the upcoming winter downpours.
At the Ain El Hilweh settlement, many are fed up with journalists reporting on their situation. While taking notes during interviews, a tall man as thin as bones walks up and grab this reporter’s pen, then slaps it back down on the notebook.
“For what,” he says, trembling with anger. “Everyday journalists like you come here–three or four per day–but nothing changes.”
Another resident pleads for him to calm down, explaining that people need to know how the refugees are living.
“Refugee,” the man fires back. “You are not a refugee. You are a prisoner!”
A few days later, rain gushed down across the country for several hours in the first winter downpour. The tents in Ain El Hilweh have predictably been flooded with one collapsing on a refugee and breaking his leg.
“The children are getting sick,” says camp coordinator Abu Saleh El Makdah over the phone. “No one is helping us.”
Neighborhood residents watch TV on a Hamra street corner recently.
I recently did an interview with Los Angeles Public Radio about the perpetuation of media stereotypes during these times of political transition– both those of Islam in the Western media (based on my recent piece in Al Monitor) as well as the negative portrayals that have been given new life in the Arab world. Our discussion focused on the dire situation experienced by Syrian refugees in Lebanon: not only do they face a lack of rooms and public services, but also the residue of decades of stereotypes in Lebanese popular culture that have painted “The Syrian” as both buffon-like and dangerous.
“The Syrian” has long been the mainstay of Lebanese popular humor, including television parody shows that often feature Syrian characters as an intelligence agents who terrify the neighborhood such as the serial, gun-slinging role of “Tahseen” on the show La Youmal. Typically in such comedy shows, Syrian dialects are exaggerated and Syrians are represented as one-dimensional agents of an oppressive regime. A Lebanese television director who wrote such scripts once told me that his stereotypes were justified due to the history of the Syrian government’s military activities in Lebanon, where its role was seen by many as a destabilizing in its support for feuding militias during the civil war and corrupt politicians in the post war period. But as the uprisings and violence engulf Syria, the stereotype seems to be changing–at least somewhat–with a distinction increasingly being made among some Lebanese between the Syrian regime and the Syrian people, largely as a result of TV images that paint Syrian civilians as victims of those same regime agents. In addition, the influx of refugees has created fresh contact between many Syrians and Lebanese and some positive synergies seem to be happening particularly among young artists and activists. On the other hand, just as the violence has helped complicate some generalized portrayals, it has also bolstered others. These include “The Shiite” and “The Alawite,” who are viewed simplistically as ‘the enemy’ among many Syrian Sunni refugees I have spoken to. Though there have been attacks on some Syrian migrant workers, I’ve heard unsubstantiated tales of murder and militarization allegedly perpetrated by “The Shiites”– so much so that some Syrian refugees tell me they are largely avoiding Shiite areas for both work and refuge. Undoubtedly these simplistic views have also been strengthened by television images, particularly the preachings of angry anti-regime clerics who have called for Assad-loyal Alawites “to be fed to the dogs.” For more about these trends and their worrying future prospects, listen to my full interview at the Ian Masters’ show on KPFK.
When I first met Anthony Shadid he was sitting across the table from me in a Doha conference room in 2003 eagerly jotting down quotes in a tiny notebook. There were about 10 of us in the room– young, enthusiastic journalists from several countries that had been hired as the first staff writers for Al Jazeera International, which would eventually become the television channel Al Jazeera English. Anthony was there to interview us for his piece on Qatar’s media ambitions at the time. I remember being fascinated by his ability to use such a tiny notebook (about the size of a pack of cigarettes) to capture so many voices at once. But being young, idealistic and vocal, I was also terrified by what he was going to use and barely slept that night! Thankfully our comments didn’t make into his story, and fears of being snatched at night by mukhabarat never materialized.
I ran into Anthony several more times over the years, at conferences and news events, even at the gym in Beirut. “Hope all’s well with you,” he wrote me a year ago. “If you’re in Beirut, I’d love to get coffee when I get back.” Having known more than a few egotistic journalists over the years– whose talents don’t compare to his– Anthony was very humble for a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He encouraged my work on this blog and printed out a draft of my in-depth piece on the Lebanese Jewish community, “a subject that is really dear to my heart,” and promised to read it. I always planned to follow up with him and now regret not having had the chance to do so.
Though our encounters were often brief, what sticks with me the most about Anthony, in addition to his insightful writing and humility, was his perspective on the role of a journalist: “My job is to bear witness,” he told a 2005 conference in Texas, explaining that “conversations… are probably the best thing we can encounter as journalists.” He said listening to and recording the thoughts of average people was often more important than the punditry of leaders and analysts that claim to speak for them.
He further elaborated on this theme at a 2008 AUB conference saying:
“If I’ve learned something after more than 12 years of being a foreign correspondent… (it’s that) the journalism we can be least proud of is the journalism that comes from claiming to know too much, of acting like someone we are not.”
“The articles that I felt held up over time were the ones that gave voice to the people I met there over those weeks (in Baghdad), that describe their sentiments, their fears, their hopes and their ambitions. The ones that felt dated and cliched were the ones where I put forth my own views when I said with too much certainty what was going in a country that wasn’t my own.”
Here is the full lecture:
May Anthony’s words live on, and continue to inspire other journalists as they have inspired me.