The names of those interviewed for this story have been withheld for confidentiality. Photographs by Helen Mackreath.
THE MUNICIPALITY OFFICE near the Syrian border is all glassy white floors and large bare spaces. Men sweep the narrow street outside, in front of grocers where herbs and stalks hang limply in the heat. The “smoking ban” has not reached this far north of Lebanon — the office of the municipality chief executive is filled with curling wisps, illuminating his panoramic view of the town. Men and women sit on the comfortable sofas, also smoking; members of the civic community come here to air their grievances, or just to pass the time. The authority of this office is symbolic: brash police sirens play at melodic intervals to relieve boredom rather than part traffic; little boys salute passing police cars with smiles on their faces as if in ironic jest. Policemen do their weekly grocery shopping while on duty — keeping order is the least pressing part of their day. One officer, recently split from his two girlfriends, flirts with refugee women — an opportunity his uniform affords.
This is a town in Akkar Province, in the north of Lebanon, one of the poorest parts of the country. It has been receiving refugees since the early days of the Syrian civil war, mainly from Homs, a city located a couple hundred kilometres to the northeast. Today there are an estimated 290,000 refugees here — people on the street joke that it’s harder to find a Lebanese than a Syrian. The area is connected to Syria through tribal links, kinship networks, intermarriage, and business relationships, making it a strange limbo space. It is mostly peaceful, in a region caving away to asymmetrical enclaves of violence. To reach here from Beirut one must drive through Tripoli — its sporadic conflict playing out on the streets is a mirror to the Syrian crisis next door. On one trip through, a roadside coffee vendor warned me offhandedly of sniper fire on the roundabout 20 meters ahead.
The Syrian population has been treated with a mixture of individual sympathy, inevitable exploitation, and simple resentment. Tensions from the three-year civil war are on the rise, but still there remains a sizeable number of Lebanese people who are assisting the refugee population through their own means.
The municipality chief executive fiddles with paper on his desk. The international community is undermining his office, he says. He speaks with a hoarse voice, loud and aggressive. “Why are you coming here asking questions?” “You’re just another European person with no intention of helping.” He apologizes for getting emotional, but his words resonate with cynicism — he is a disempowered authority figure, full of derision for the international relief effort. Both it and the Lebanese state are largely circumventing local governance in their refugee assistance efforts.
As I left he was smoking on the balcony above the entrance, standing pensively against the Lebanese flag — drilling words into a smartphone.
In the hills of north Lebanon, there maintains a contradictory state of affairs. The population swells but the streets don’t clutter; construction rumbles but the finished glitz of new builds doesn't materialize. As you drive out of the towns the view is uniform: block structures and skeleton outlines of homes; pipes and ropes litter the ground alongside an alternating pattern of holes and rubble. Children play in the chalk dusts. Syrian refugees are hidden from view in homes, renovated basements or outbuildings. There are estimates that an average of nine Syrians are living with every Lebanese in the far northeast of the country. One municipal chief executive put the number of hosting families at 6,000–7,000. The residents of Akkar are both moral rescuers and suffering victims, creating a space paradoxically autonomous from and dependent on international humanitarian assistance. The family member who opens doors, the local businessman who offers small employment, the shopkeeper who lends small change here and there, the stranger with a spare car to drive to hospital. These public and private social webs are complex, almost opaque in the way they connect a wide range of individuals across cities and nations. Long-distant cousins in Beirut, or Tripoli, or Saudi-Arabia, become the lifeline for a whole family.
Some form of gift economy is operating in these villages, whether for moral or religious reasons. One small elderly Lebanese lady, who has converted her outbuilding into a home of sorts for a Syrian family, quotes her religious conviction as motivation for her efforts. “If God gives you something, give to someone else.” She herself receives food and other small tokens of generosity from her neighbors. They come to the house during the day and quietly drop off their offerings without regard for credit or gratitude. When people in need seek her out, she welcomes them into her doorless outbuilding with a wide engaging smile, clearly pleased as the cooking pot bubbles with their first meat, which she has brought for them. The lady is confident of being paid back in full and in time by her guests, when they are in a position to do so.
The rough-and-ready scrambling together of resources, from all nooks and crannies of distant relatives, detached acquaintances, complete strangers, is noteworthy. The “story” of the Syrian refugee in north Lebanon is not of an individual, but of a collective. You cannot talk of the individual here without talking of their family, and you cannot talk of the family without placing it within the network of the extended family, and other previous strangers who have forged almost familial links as a result of their support. But the reasons for disassociated individuals to sacrifice a basement or an outhouse or a home or, not insignificant, sums of money to strangers are profoundly personal. There is the sadness of the tall quiet man, shoulders slightly slumped and a stillness evident about his person, who has given one home and one basement space up to two separate families in memory of his wife, who was badly injured in a car accident several decades ago. There is the elderly man who gave up his home to two separate families, strangers to him, because they came asking for help and he could not refuse them. Another elderly man won’t let his relatives — esteemed professionals — accept aid, preferring to give it all himself because of the shame attached to such a transaction. These individuals feel compelled to act because of personal grievances or generosity; they remain hidden alongside roadsides and behind ramshackle box buildings, demonstrating some profound humility.
There is of course a less rosy side to this story. In the case of three Lebanese brothers interviewed for this story, one works as a mechanic in a blackened garage and has 20 relatives living with him as guests, the families of his brother-in-law; the second brother is charging rent of his own family; the third brother is not helping at all. (As a retired solider he is barred from taking political action of any kind.) Exploitation is also happening. Rent has tripled or quadrupled in some places. There are winners and losers to the situation. Depletion of jobs and resources (water most pressingly) is well documented, and the Syrian population is an easy scapegoat. Even those who sympathize with the refugees are suspicious of Syrian migrants, who have lived here before the crisis in Syria and sign up as refugees with their compatriots. Assistance is often given only within extended families, which consolidates existing networks, as in the case of an aged farmer living off his bountiful land of orange and olive trees, worked by a burgeoning collection of Syrian in-laws. (The family had just made sweets to celebrate the election of a new government when I spoke to them. They have shunned any outside support.) Or it’s given for reasons which aren’t simply humanitarian, such as easing security, or providing some “moral superiority” in the historically intricate Lebanese-Syrian dynamic. In whatever case, the individual is burdening a collective responsibility here.
The picture gets confusing between actors. You are as likely to find individuals as angry at the international community as they are at the Syrians. The Lebanese state is always a good target of blame for their neglect of infrastructure, which is particularly acute here in the north. Individuals from all walks of life are divided by their feelings. One Syrian man explains that his landlady and female neighbor saved him when a gang of Lebanese men started swarming and threatening him, while in the same breath expresses how at home he feels in his adopted community. It is impossible to make sweeping statements about the situation of hospitality: individuals are driven by their emotions, changing with the weather or their personal circumstance.
Where to draw the line between the individual and the community? Walking around a Christian village in Akkar is like a parallel universe. The municipality chief executive assured me refugees “don’t really need the help of locals,” but if there are fewer Syrian refugees in this town, it results more from the fact that in the majority of cases, Lebanese hosts are helping Syrian individuals of similar background and religion to themselves. Those who live here are paying rent and treated as a standard business opportunity by their landlords, rather than a refugee. I met a couple of the landlords living in large whitewashed houses and they seemed perplexed by my interest in refugees. This is in stark contrast to Muslim towns in the region, where rent is accepted late or even decreased by sensitive landlords, and the free hosting of refugees is more common.
This all paints a messy picture of refugee assistance. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is officially working in cooperation with the Lebanese government, and some NGOs coordinate their operations through municipalities, there is confusion across all levels about which role which actors are playing, and how their individual parts join together to form a coherent whole. There is no coherent whole of which to speak in these areas, only a collection of organizations, some working together and others working to plug perceived “gaps,” invariably leaving some individuals falling between holes. And assistance cannot escape the political. Arab funding from the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf is not supporting the Lebanese government due to Hezbollah’s influence in the cabinet. They are channeling aid instead through a network of Islamic faith-based organizations who operate through sheikhs within localized settings, and are often far more trusted by local people than international providers.
Residents here acknowledge assistance of the international community, albeit with some complaints (“Qatar only gave us dates! What use is that?”). One man sits quietly on his Winnie the Pooh–covered foam mattress and waits for his eyesight to clear — his vision has been foggy since the chemical weapon attack in Damascus — so that he might resume work as a truck driver. He suffered a heart attack recently and was four days in agony before money could be found to pay the hospital charges, which were paid for by the UNHCR; his family would prefer he die in Akkar, rather than Beirut, so they can bury his body for free rather than stump up the $200 required for a grave in the capital. (Even death comes at a premium, which is ironic given so much of it is around.) One retired couple who came from wealth and education in Syria now live in the basement of a house a local man has given up to them. The manner of the elderly gentleman’s greeting, the couples’ gait and composed manner of talking make it clear that they are accustomed to welcoming far more important guests into their home than interviewers probing their refugee experiences. His wry dignity and her gentle smiles fill their box space with warmth; a neighbor helps fix their toilet during my visit. Their angelic-faced granddaughter running and rolling around the patterned rug on the bare concrete has a digestive problem, which could be easily remedied. Now she is dependent on the UNHCR and the beneficence of the man who owns their temporary basement home. Subtle interactions of power are manifest at all times, however much they are fiercely repelled.
But bureaucracy is also rampant and sometimes this impedes common sense. For instance, even if disability is carefully noted as a “criteria of vulnerability” in the sheaves of UNHCR policy statements, no one I’ve met who has a disability, real or otherwise, has received compensation for it. The members of a family living in a shell of a building just outside a large town, who seem impossibly unlucky in their disability count, sit around a plastic table confused and hurt, almost as if slighted, that their disabilities are not “credited” by the UNHCR. Various boxes are ticked, units of disempowerment accrued, and tallies drawn up as though prizes are being distributed at the end of a school term for those students who have performed well enough. For this family, the two bread-winning members are handicapped, one by blindness and the other by a bad stomach and back, leaving two underage sons to scrape together $1 here and there by carrying objects on their heads. This small income is enough to tick the “employed” box, and their level of vulnerability shoots down on paper. There are other stories of mismanagement, too — the removal of “illegal” electricity cables by the Lebanese state, which elderly refugees were using to power breathing equipment and ventilation in the summer; the distribution of heaters in July and excessive amounts of food during Ramadan, which cost more money to dispose of than distribute. Refugees and municipality executives seize upon these small examples as evidence of some more widespread incompetence than exists in reality.
A Lebanese lady married a Syrian man as a young girl and moved to live with him in Homs. Now he lies on a scuffed mattress in the corner of a gray concrete box room, wearing a keffiyeh, weak and frail in his older age. They have returned to live with the lady’s brother, in her Lebanese childhood town, and her old local neighbors are helping with rent and some little food. Her young daughter, who has the fragility of a child, is pregnant by a husband who lies dead in Syria. When she can, she pays back to people half her rice supply from the UNHCR in exchange for a little money for rent. Her situation is nuanced — only one of her brothers is helping her, and she still feels unwanted by the community, despite their help. Nearby in the scuffed ground of a parking lot other children play their own games and fight over nationality and religion. “Syrians don’t belong here” squares one young set of shoulders to another. Resentment is being bred in the youngest generations, carving another cycle of hostility between the two nations.
Above all, the provision of humanitarian assistance to refugees in Akkar is a personal act. Humanitarianism is usually ill equipped to deal with the beneficence of individuals, not quite knowing how to react to it. This is not paternalistic or written by rote, but a diffuse horizontal network of power operating through mutual understanding of reciprocity, individual relations between two beings with their own drivers, rather than a “giver-receiver” hierarchy. These networks are applauded and mentioned in passing, but there is rarely a focus on the homes of ordinary individuals across north Lebanon. Real values are felt and practiced in these households — generosity, dignity, selflessness, however it might be termed — which are at odds with the cynical humanitarianism to which we have become accustomed, with its donor reports and figure-totting. Of course, greed and exploitation serve to illustrate the paradox inherent in any humanitarian crisis of this kind — a hard reminder that the choice between survival for oneself, and the survival of another, can never be observed within a vacuum.
Helen Mackreath is a writer and researcher based in Beirut, currently working on Syrian refugees in Lebanon.