At Home with Syrian Refugees and Their Hosts
By Helen MackreathNovember 20, 2014
The names of those interviewed for this story have been withheld for confidentiality. Photographs by Helen Mackreath.
THE NORTH OF LEBANON has long served as a gateway point for countless populations over the last few centuries and beyond — some pausing for years or decades before moving on to the north, east and south. Today, the flow is one-directional: between the Syrian and the Lebanese populations, as Syrians have swept across the border since March 2011. This flow is marked by zigzag patterns, as many Syrians and Lebanese continue to migrate back and forth across the porous border for trade. But the greater part of the mass has remained entrenched.
After reporting on the role of host communities for these pages, I went back toward the end of summer to visit one particular Syrian refugee family with their Lebanese hosts. It was still parched and sticky in Lebanon; the country sucked dry of any water and tempers fraying at the edges. Once past Tripoli, perched on the northern coast, the skies were gray and heavy with rain. Squashed figs and watermelons sat on the roadsides; army vehicles swept past neon-colored women on the bustling streets. The previous week, the families of Lebanese soldiers abducted by ISIS had blocked this coastal road; they still sat around the road, slumped over on white plastic seats in front of large posters of wide-eyed uniformed young men. They were talking about life, death, and imprisonment as battered Mercedes swept past on the road, northbound.
The Syrian family had been picking walnuts from a tree when I’d arrived. The husband’s fingers and nails were smeared with reddish brown — taking two in a palm, carefully lining the seams of the shells, then crushing until one cracked. His whole body was brown, the fingers hardly any darker. I’d visited him a few months previously when his eyesight was still blurry from the chemical attack on Damascus. It was better now, aside from a red blister under one lid, and yellow-stained hair as a mark of that day. Sitting in a graying vest pulled tight over a bulging stomach, he cracked jokes as easily as the nuts, with all the theatrics of a seasoned performer.
The relationship between the Syrian refugee family and their Lebanese hosts is, if possible, both detached and tightly conjoined. They don’t like to trouble one another, but enjoy sharing meals and stories. They don’t state the obvious: how fundamentally different both sets of lives are now in the past nine months since the Syrians moved in. The Syrian family lives in an outbuilding five steps from the main house. Their home is compact and orderly, a perfect cuboid structure of a model home; a turquoise door complements the gray concrete. Inside, crooked passport photos neatly line one wall (five of them, one for each child) and foam mattresses rest against the wall. There is a gas stove and a framed view of the cow grazing outside. They joke that they’ve made their home so pleasant everyone wants to move in — quite literally as it turns out. The local mayor had plotted to have them removed so that his own Syrian guests could be installed.
They eat meals together in the evening, and talk of the refugee family’s deceased son in Syria. Or call out to each other when they’re preparing lunch, washing, or hunting birds. (The young son stalks over with a rifle slung lazily across one arm and khaki slacks.) Lunch is kishick cheese and onion soup. Most of their conversations revolve around food, or politics. Everyone is scared of ISIS. They laugh as they speak: “Akeed! [Of course!] It’s one of the things we have in common.” ISIS has now interchanged with traditional mountain customs of preserving food in the winter.
The Syrian man sits like a king under the walnut tree and entertains his audience, to wild laughter from his Lebanese hosts and wife. They are very much in love. She giggles with him, and he teases her tenderly. He picks her roses, and she scolds him that she’d rather he brought her a chicken for her to cook. She married him when she was 14, when he was a young man working a fuul shop in Damascus. On Saturdays in Syria they’d grill meat he’d brought the day before, long lunches stewed with arak, and he’d sing and dance with their children, or take them for day trips to the beach at Latakia. Now, 38 years later, there are no children left for whom to perform. He mildly disciplines the Lebanese son instead, if he is misbehaving (“respect your mother”), hard words spoken with soft eyes.
It is not an uncommon courtesy to open one’s home to a stranger or very distant relative here. In 2006, during the three-week war with Israel, an estimated 180,000 Lebanese found refuge in Syria, and a further 500,000 fled to the mountains in the north of Lebanon from their villages in the south, where they found shelter in the homes of ordinary individuals. Newspaper headlines in those days clarified the story — “Lebanese refugees pour across Syrian border,” “Discontent in Syria as more neighbours drop in.” Some Syrians remind me of this debt, out of the earshot of Lebanese, although the situation of the Lebanese refugees was never as protracted as that of the Syrians today.
The two countries share a long history that has only recently been a history of two nations. Originally one nation, Greater Syria, the French in 1926 split it into two sister republics, partitioning them into a variety of administrative units — including a state of Damascus, state of Aleppo, Alawite state, the Jabal al-Druze, and the Sanjak of Alexandretta — both under their mandate. They both shared the same currency and customs services, but flew different flags, and were run by separate native administrations under one French High Commissioner residing in Beirut. Even following the formal independence of Lebanon in 1943, the Syrian army occupied the country for 29 long and battle-weary years during the war that raged here. As a means to retain the status quo, of which they were prime beneficiaries, different Maronite Christian factions reached out to Syria, inviting its military into Lebanon in 1976 as a means to control the Palestinian population and provide military support to a Christian side ailing in the civil war. Syria did not officially leave Lebanon until 2005, when a popular Lebanese uprising of one million people forced its military out of the country in an event known as the Cedar Revolution. But in the north of the country, less ravaged by the destruction and human rights violations, including torture that prevailed in the south, the links between Syria and Lebanon have always remained physically porous.
There’s a terrible arbitrariness of life in the small acts of winning and losing. The son of the host Lebanese family I visited recently ran up a comparative fortune in a few days working as a sous-chef in the local town, thanks to eager tipping, and he’d brought 15 chickens for both families to celebrate. Within a few hours the dog had killed 12 of them. The travesty was delivered in playful resignation while the remaining three chickens strutted in circles in a makeshift hut in the corner. Already arguments were rising to a happy shriek over how best to cook them.
But despite the friendly back-and-forth and sensitivity between the two families, and the jokes and self-deprecation of the Syrians — the Syrian man describes his reaction to one Lebanese family giving him two kilograms of eggplants: “I’m not ashamed to take your meat, but please don’t give me eggplants, I’m not starving enough for that!” — their underlying vulnerability is uncontested.
He makes a request of his Lebanese host while I’m there. “I’m really ashamed to have to ask you for this.”
“What do you want? Cigarettes? I won’t give you cigarettes.”
“No, I just want a small amount of olive oil.”
No amount of joking can detract from the gravity of the situation. They receive food from the UNHCR food vouchers, and extras from friendly neighbors. Last month they sold their vouchers to gain some disposable income, but their Lebanese host is encouraging them to keep it for food this month.
It goes without saying that different people navigate the question of refugee identity in different, ever-shifting ways. This is slightly more manageable in Akkar, where Syrian and Lebanese relatives mingle in the streets, and the identity of the region has long been one of shifting boundaries and identities in flux. My probing into refugee identity was met with mixed responses: the answers I received were often embedded with contradictions, none of which painted the same picture. In one breath a Lebanese lady told me how helpful her neighbors had been to her, while remonstrating that the local community made her feel like a refugee. She was one of several Lebanese women I’ve met who married Syrian men and spent their adult lives in that country before returning to their home villages in destitute circumstances. One Syrian craftsman, who fashions quirky shelves and ornaments out of bits of tires and scrap material, felt like he had found a parallel community within which he has been able to integrate. But he had also been subject to abuse from local residents as a result of being Syrian.
But everyone, regardless of their situation, describes the unshakable fact of being a refugee. Their lives in public are conducted only as “a refugee,” as dictated by public expectation, even if they can easily slip into private homes or among family members. For some, this identity appears more easily navigated (at least, when questioned by a stranger about it), but the fundamental dynamic remains. For the educated elderly couple being hosted by a well-off Lebanese man just outside a large town, their active participation in the social life of their local community has altered the way they self-identify — “The community has made us feel at home” — although not necessarily how they are identified. And for those families who live with their Lebanese families, sharing food and helping with odd jobs here and there, having chosen to cut themselves off from the shame of external patronage, the dynamic of dependency remains. No matter how it is termed or dealt with, they are powerless to govern their own future.
At the same time, Syrian refugees in Lebanon are not strictly refugees — rather, they are “temporary guests” the county is hosting. This is not just a question of semantics — Lebanon, along with Jordan and Iraq, is not a party to the 1951 UNHCR Refugee Convention, nor its 1967 Protocol, and Syrian refugees in these countries are not technically protected by its mandate. While refugees are encouraged to register with the UNHCR to gain official refugee status and entitlement to UNHCR assistance, according to Lebanese national law, without legal entry (through an official border crossing) and stay documentation, Lebanon considers refugees from Syria (including Palestinian refugees from Syria) to be undocumented immigrants. They are protected instead through Arab notions of hospitality, “karam” — an intermingling of security, protection, and respect. This understanding underpins how private Lebanese individuals host Syrian refugees. It enhances the reputation of the host and increases their security, if one day they need hosting themselves. Such a cycle of hospitality and refuge has existed since the Ottoman millet system, in which the central government’s authority devolved, as did its responsibility for forced migrants, to self-governing millets. Today it manifests itself in the individual acts of kindness shown by strangers or distant family members, more common in the north than other parts of the country.
But notions of hospitality are private concerns; different Lebanese are reacting differently toward the refugees, or have had their feelings altered about the situation by the Syrians’ protracted stay and impact on Lebanon’s economy and sectarian balance. In Beirut, certain communities have imposed various informal curfews for Syrians, trying to take matters into their own hands. A banner in Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian district, warns, “All Foreigners [Syrians] should be off the streets after 8 p.m.” Across the country over 40 Lebanese municipalities have imposed curfews on Syrians. In Akkar in the north of the country, which has traditionally been the poorest and most neglected from government handouts, resentment toward the Syrian population is still present, manifested in sporadic acts of aggression. Even relations between those Lebanese and the Syrians whom they host may be damaged by incompatible personalities, or unequal power dynamics.
The family talked drama over the Lebanese son joining the army; a tall boy of 17, slumped morosely on his chair with clipped hair and razor shavings. If he joined he’d have a pension, social welfare, security. And if he joined, his wages might help pay for the second story on the house behind, whose upper concrete walls are a shell. This was the Syrian man’s measured prognosis; his Lebanese hosts nodded in agreement. The boy in question remained silent, weighted by soft nudges of familial aspiration. He was still depressed over the chicken-dog debacle, which had occurred a few hours before I’d arrived. (Although the concrete ground was not bloodied by the carnage, presumably already cleaned by the Syrian lady’s clockwork sweeping. She told me she had to pause every few moments owing to pain in her kidney, but she maintained her easy rhythm.)
His reservations are understandable. Joining the Lebanese Armed Forces today is to join a precarious and uncertain future. Twenty-seven soldiers and members of the security force are still being held captive by a mixture of ISIS and al-Nusra Front supporters, and have been since early August. Three of them have already been executed by their captors — two by ISIS and one by al-Nusra Front. The victims’ families have closed down parts of central downtown Beirut since mid-September in protest of the lack of government action over the release of their loved ones. Huge faces of fatigued young men adorn blue and white tents; small children scoot around deserted roads, closed off by coils of barbed wire. Women sit inside, cross-legged and meditative on flimsy mattresses, while the men gather around outside in groups, smoking and discussing whether to escalate their protests. This week protests reached levels of hysteria as ISIS issued an ultimatum on the lives of seven of the hostages. Desperate relatives had already burnt tires and blocked the main road leading northbound in anger and fear. The army is the saving grace of Lebanese sovereignty, one of the few signs of the Lebanese state, which is still without a government and submerged in entrenched political paralysis. But they are facing increasing threats from militants supportive of, or associated with, ISIS and al-Nusra Front; battles between the army and militants have already been playing out in Tripoli in the north in the past few days, with increasing numbers of raids being carried out across the hills in the North. The fear of militant sleeper cells existing among refugee populations (from which there are many to choose out of Syrian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Palestinian-Syrian, and other refugee groups existing here) is only serving to increase frustrations against the refugee presence, manifested as discrimination from individuals and officials alike.
The Syrian refugee family and their hosts in Akkar are unanimous in their condemnation of ISIS — “Anyone with the slightest notion of life will not join them” — but this unanimity of opinion does not stop Syrians across the country being targeted by Lebanese individuals as part of a backlash against extremist groups, mixed with resentment over the strain of bloated refugee numbers. The Lebanese lady gossips with other women in the local market in Akkar, sharing stories of Syrians on the streets in Beirut and incidents of unrest; words passed from one mouth to another with knowing looks. She is pragmatic about the Syrians — “Some of them are troublemakers and some are in very severe situations” — and pragmatic about why she is willing to keep helping her own guests — “They’re good people, quiet people, they don’t interfere.” But while many individual cases of hospitality and friendship continue between Lebanese hosts and their Syrian guests, they are living in an increasingly tough environment, no matter what individual generosity comes their way.
Helen Mackreath is the Middle East Correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books based in Istanbul, previously in Beirut and the West Bank. She is currently researching issues relating to Syrian refugee governance in Turkey.
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