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.