Syrian refugees in Lebanon

19 September 2013

Syrian refugees sit around a stove inside their tent during a winter storm in Zahle. The vast majority of the refugees are from the hard-hit provinces of Homs and Damascus. (c) Washington Post

This blog is on ancient history, but today, I make an exception. Those who have followed me over the past year and a half, know that I’ve been to Lebanon three times – and it is for this country modern that I ask your attention. (Next time, I will be blogging about some site in Gaul, some senator, or some Anatolian king again. Promise.)

According to last week’s UNHCR figures, about two million people from Syria have left their country. Some 720,000 people have been registered in Lebanon, a country with some four million inhabitants that already hosts some 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Because I cannot really understand what it means, I decided to ask Maya, who lives in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, some twenty kilometers from the Syrian border.

First two questions about numbers. 720,000 people is almost incredible. Do you believe that it is accurate?
When it comes to counting refugees, accuracy is always an issue. We have the non-registered, the registered, and the ones who come back and forth to Lebanon. But all in all, I think the number is much more than that. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon may be more than 900,000.

You live in Zahle. With some 50,000 inhabitants, it is the first major town a refugee from Damascus will visit. How many Syrians are there in your hometown?
In fact, the Bekaa Valley itself rather than Zahle, which is already on the slopes of the mountains, is the main destination for refugees. The valley is closer to the Syrian border, most refugees settle in Bekaa regions like Ghazzeh, Kabelias, Barelias, Majdel Anjar, Saadneyel, Marej, Taalabaya. Fewer Syrians settle in Zahle since it’s more expensive to live here; in the regions I mentioned the number of refugees is high because they can set up tents, something we rarely see in Zahle. Approximately 400,000 Syrians live in the Bekaa.

How are these people sheltered?
I think it’s important to keep in mind that Syrians from different social classes are settling in Lebanon. The rich Syrians settle mainly in Beirut, while the less fortunate settle in the Bekaa. Those who have a good financial status may choose Zahle and Chtaura, while others have no other choice than staying in tents or old buildings and garages.

Who is paying for that? Is it just the UNHCR?
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, many NGOs gathered and united to help the refugees, many organizations cooperate in order to assist those people in need. NGOs are helping refugees by giving food vouchers, hygiene and baby kits, mattresses and blankets, stoves during wintertime, establishing toilets …. UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, World Vision, ACF, DRC, NRC among others are highly contributing to the Syrians’ cry for help.

I recall that Zahle is a Christian town in a predominantly Shi’ite region. Does this mean you receive mostly Christian refugees?
I believe that this issue is hard to elaborate on since most refugees do not mention any personal religious details,  but I think we live in a zone where people have always preferred to live with people of the same religious background. I believe this is still applicable nowadays (each town contains people from the same religion), so I must say that refugees will choose to settle in regions where they would feel comfortable among people who share their religious beliefs. With religious conflicts arising in Lebanon and the Arab countries, refugees have to avoid such problems.

Are the new people in your town a very visible group? How did their presence change your lives?
I think that the main impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is financial: we noticed an increase in prices of houses, rental fees, prices of food items … Still, we can’t associate this increase to the refugees only, because we have always experienced price changes in Lebanon; but the rate of the increase is getting bigger. Another main problem we are facing nowadays is the sense of insecurity of the Lebanese people. Refugees have no money, they lost everything they owned in Syria, and have nothing left to lose. This has made them consider stealing and begging as a way to make money.

Lebanon does not produce enough electricity for its needs. Blackouts are quite normal. Has this increased?
Blackouts are still occurring, there was and still is a great need. I don’t think demand should increase any further.

Is it only a tragedy? I can imagine that there must be people in Zahle, like the owner of a bakery or grocery, who must make lots of money right now.
People who are benefiting the most are land owners, landlords, and shop owners, especially those who are partnering with NGOs in order to exchange food vouchers with food items.

How do the Zahleans respond?
Lebanon always lacked tranquility, and Syria has had a great role in adding to that. Perhaps you have heard that a couple of years ago, Syrian tanks and military forces left Lebanese lands and went back to Syria. What most people don’t know, however, is what exactly happened prior to this retreat: how the Syrians mistreated the Lebanese people, harmed, killed, and took advantage of many things and people. It’s safe to say that the problems between Lebanese and Syrians go way back and lots of Lebanese citizens have suffered losses because of this dark period, in which the dominance of Syrian forces was inescapable.

For that reason, the Lebanese find it difficult to be welcoming, even though many refugees are innocent people. But after bloodshed, some things can’t be forgotten. Nevertheless, no problems were caused by Lebanese against Syrians, but the frustration is starting to show through people’s nagging about the great number of Syrians, the prices increase…

And most importantly, the Lebanese people themselves are getting no aid from NGOs yet many of them are in need as well, and they too are affected by the Syrian crisis. For example, Syrian people easily take jobs in Lebanon, especially as laborers. Since they accept lower wages than Lebanese people, this increases the unemployment rates in Lebanon and causes Lebanese citizens to get even more frustrated.

I was told that the situation was so difficult, that there some refugees were going back to Damascus. Is that true?
That’s true. There are two groups of them. Some of them go back because they find it hard to live in Lebanon, where everything is more expensive than Syria. (This might change shortly because an increase in prices is taking place in Syria.) Others go back and forth to check on their families, relatives, and possessions. After all, Syrian refugees never miss a chance to express their eagerness to go back to Syria and always wish things would go back as they were before the crisis began.

Thank you for answering these questions.

Last week, the UNHCR announced that their lack of funding was catastrophic. If you want to donate some money, you can do it here.


Lebanon and Bekaa

29 April 2012

Natural bridge at Kfardebian

I have been privileged that I have been able to travel through Turkey, Syria, and Israel before I visited Lebanon. Everywhere, you will see the line of mountains that runs parallel to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. In southern Turkey, the mountains are called the Amanus Mountains, which are separated by the river Orontes from the Bargylus Mountains in Syria. In Israel, you will see the Mountains of Judah.

None of these is comparable to the Lebanon, which is much higher. The name, “the white peaks”, ought to have been a warning to us: we optimistically believed we could drive from Byblus to Baalbek, but had to make a long detour because the passes were still covered with snow.

East of the Lebanon is the Bekaa valley, where you will find Baalbek and the four temples of Niha, about which I already wrote something. I now added webpages on the Lebanon and on the Bekaa.


Nihata

28 April 2012

The high priest Narkisos

Our visit to the temples of ancient Nihata (modern Niha) was one of the highlights of our visit to Lebanon. There are two sanctuaries, an oracle dedicated to the Syrian goddess Atargatis and a smaller shrine for Hadanares, who was comparable to the Baal-Zeus-Jupiter of Baalbek. There are two other temples, never finished, at nearby Hosn Niha.

The site must have been well-known, as it was situated along the main road from Antioch to the south: along the Orontes to Aleppo and Baalbek, and down to Tyre through the Bekaa valley. Many travelers must have seen the shrines of Nihata, and must have stayed there, as it is exactly one day from Baalbek.

My new webpages are here.


Lebanese Antiquities: Hotels and Restaurants

12 April 2012

A hotel we forgot to visit

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Maybe we were just very lucky every time we selected our hotels, but the four places where we stayed were every time more or less perfect. Breakfast was always good, the staff was always well-qualified and spoke English fluently, there was always a possibility to use the internet (although it was sometimes frustratingly slow), electricity was at 220 volt, and you can drink the water from the tap without fear for what is euphemistically called “the curse of the pharaoh” in Egypt and “Saladin’s Revenge” in Syria.

In Beirut, we slept at the Lavender Home****: a friendly place close to the Rue Hamra and the Rue Jeanne d’Arc, which are – to use two ancient words – the cardo and decumanus of the western part of the city. There were many restaurants in the neighborhood (I can recommend Laziz), and if you walk down the Rue Jeanne d’Arc, you are at the American University, with a fine archaeological museum.

In Byblus, we stayed at the Monoberge Hotel*** – we think the name is a pun on Mon Auberge – which offers good rooms and is at walking distance from the city center. Situated along the coastal highway, modestly prized, and recently built, it would be called a motel in Europe.

Although the Lebanese speak their languages well, this shop for woman's fashion has a rather unfelicitous name

Our hotel in Tyre was called Rest House****, which is very easy to find because there are many signposts, and you will immediately recognize the Unifil cars on its parking place. It is situated halfway between the Al-Bass and the Al-Mina excavations, and has a large private beach.

The nicest place was the Park Hotel***** in Chtaura. I must confess that the town itself is not very inspiring, but the hotel, close to the main road into the Bekaa Valley, is quiet and has some chique rooms. There was some kind of celebration when we were there, and it was easy to understand why the people had selected this place. Two friendly staff members offered us much advice about planning both the present trip and the next one. Because we were extremely tired on the day of our arrival, we had dinner at the nearby McDonald’s.

Which is a shame, because it is well-known that Lebanon offers one of the world’s best cuisines. Besides, they produce some fine wines in the area of Chtaura and Zahle. It is usually possible to smoke a good water pipe, the local beer (Almaza) is fine, and the Lebanese know how to make a good coffee. This country is a gourmet’s paradise.

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