Is everyone 'potentially an enemy'?

Two boys pose for a photo on a dusty street
Irregular camps for Syrian refugees have sprung up throughout Lebanon. Some municipalities are welcoming, others are not [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]
Irregular camps for Syrian refugees have sprung up throughout Lebanon. Some municipalities are welcoming, others are not [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]

Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon - On April 9, the night before Eid al-Fitr celebrations got under way in Lebanon, Syrian refugee Hussein came home to find his front door smashed in.

A day earlier, the Lebanese army had announced the abduction and murder of Pascal Sleiman, a local official for the influential Christian political party, the Lebanese Forces. Authorities pointedly identified the suspects as Syrian.

While Lebanese Forces leadership floated the possibility of a political assassination, vigilantes turned their ire on Syrian refugees. The ensuing mob violence swiftly found its way to Hussein’s doorstep in the Christian-dominated East Beirut neighbourhood of Geitawi.

“Some guys had broken open the door and messed up my stuff,” Hussein recalled. “I interpreted it as them saying: 'We are here.'”

Hussein’s neighbour came to his defence when his home was attacked, telling him that he had confronted four young men and sent them away before they wreaked more havoc. While thankful for his neighbour’s loyalty, Hussein - a resident of Geitawi for 10 years - no longer sees the area the same way.

“It’s hard for me to accept that everyone around me is potentially an enemy.”

Tensions had already been mounting against Syrians for weeks before Sleiman’s killing.

Since March, a national advertising campaign has called on the international community to “undo the damage” caused by the continued presence of displaced Syrians in Lebanon. Widely reported crimes like the recent murder of an elderly East Beirut resident - committed, local media outlets reported, by Syrian burglars - stoked more public anger against Syrian refugees. And there had been many reports of mob violence against Syrians, particularly in predominantly Christian areas.

Anti-Syrian sentiments in Lebanon go far back.

Some still revile Damascus’s military intervention in the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) and subsequent occupation of Lebanon until 2005 - at times unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between the past regime and present refugees.

Syrian refugees walk as they carry containers at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon March 12, 2021
Syrian refugees walk as they carry containers at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon March 12, 2021 [Mohamed Azakir/Reuters]

In October 2019, with the onset of Lebanon’s unprecedented economic crisis, more Lebanese - often following their political leaders’ example - started blaming the country’s financial collapse on the burden of hosting more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

In the aftermath of Sleiman's murder, prominent Lebanese from across sectarian lines swiftly decried the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Bassam Mawlawi, the caretaker interior minister, called for fewer Syrians in Lebanon, while Minister of Social Affairs Hector Hajjar said any Lebanese person describing all Syrians as refugees was a “criminal conspirator” against the state.

Earlier in April, caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati said nothing united the Lebanese more than the "issue of displaced Syrians". He also said most of the refugees would be repatriated once the international community recognises “secure zones” in Syria for them, despite the ongoing war in Syria and the persistence of a regime millions of Syrians have fled.

Political incitement, once unleashed, can prove hard to rein in. “When [political parties] use political violence, their supporters translate that into physical violence,” observed Hussein.

For now, this latest bout of anti-Syrian violence has seemingly eased, as it did after similar waves in the past. But the threat of even more widespread clashes remains.

"Violence and deportations have largely affected the working class, but more middle-class youth have also been targeted. That's precisely what makes this moment so dangerous: The spread of lawless violence will affect everyone," said Alex Simon, research director of Synaps, a Beirut-based research organisation.

It does not help matters that Lebanon’s security forces, which would need to quell such a violent conflict, find themselves under-resourced and overstretched during the economic crisis.

'Friendly racism'

White building on a street with a canopy in front of it
Hussein, a Syrian refugee, avoids walking in front of the offices of the Christian Lebanese Forces' party in the Geitawi neighbourhood of Beirut, where angry locals sometimes congregate [David Wood/Al Jazeera]
Hussein, a Syrian refugee, avoids walking in front of the offices of the Christian Lebanese Forces' party in the Geitawi neighbourhood of Beirut, where angry locals sometimes congregate [David Wood/Al Jazeera]

Hussein had joked about the possibility of far-right Christian vigilantes breaking into his apartment while speaking to Al Jazeera a month before Sleiman's murder.

In May 2023, someone had forced entry to his home, without causing serious damage. Hussein added that, if Christian vigilantes had in fact been the culprits, they might have been surprised by what they found in his living room.

“A while ago, a Bible ended up in my house by chance, and it’s still there,” Hussein, an atheist, laughed. “They would also be impressed by my collection of empty arak bottles.”

Hussein lives in Geitawi because he finds it to be more tolerant.

A few years ago, he rented a cheaper apartment in Furn el-Chebbak, a more working-class suburb of Beirut, but returned to Geitawi after five months. The "za’ran" (thugs)  menacing Syrian refugees in Furn el-Chebbak were just less present in Geitawi.

“Here, you have what I call 'friendly racism'," he explained. “People will say things to me like: ‘But you don’t look Syrian.’”

Hussein, who comes from near Homs and spent years in Damascus as an activist,  does not fit the stereotypical image many Lebanese have of Syrians.

With his pale skin, he lacks  the golden tan of the many Syrian agricultural and construction workers who have worked in Lebanon long before the Syrian refugee crisis began.

A Syrian refugee child holds a water bottle at an informal tented settlement in Akkar, Lebanon.
A Syrian refugee child holds a water bottle at an informal tented settlement in Akkar, Lebanon [File: Walid Saleh/Reuters]

Often, these labourers hail from rural, socially conservative regions of Syria – and seldom project Hussein’s aesthetic, with his long hair and fondness for heavy metal band t-shirts.

Yet, Geitawi had felt unsafe at times. Aside from the two break-ins, Hussein says, Lebanese vigilantes sometimes set up informal checkpoints in the neighbourhood when anti-Syrian rhetoric rose around the country. At these illegal stops, they would allegedly halt passing traffic to identify Syrians and, in some cases, beat them.

“As Syrians, we have bad memories of such things,” Hussein said. “When the [Syrian civil] war started, there were armed, informal 'shabiha' [pro-government groups of men] who used force.”

That is why Hussein opposes community security initiatives like a short-lived project backed by local Christian MP Nadim Gemayel.

Running from November 2022 for about seven months, it employed young Lebanese men to patrol East Beirut’s streets overnight to prevent crimes - after only a one-day "guidance session". Gemayel claims the initiative had the blessing of Lebanon’s embattled security forces, but residents were not willing to fund the project, so it was suspended.

After the latest break-in, Hussein sought refuge in a nearby language school for a few days but has since returned to his home. Nevertheless, for now, he plans to avoid walking down Geitawi’s main thoroughfare, which contains local branch offices of the Christian parties Lebanese Forces and Kataeb – places where angry locals sometimes gather outside if social tensions are running high.

“I have lived with this psychological violence before, when I was in Syria,” he recalled. “As an activist, I used to take complicated routes to avoid all the checkpoints.”

“Now the same s*** is happening here in Lebanon.”

Knowing when trouble’s coming

A billboard carries advertising against the Syrian refugee presence in Lebanon in the village of Mrouj
A billboard in the village of Mrouj carries an anti-Syrian refugee message [David Wood/Al Jazeera]
A billboard in the village of Mrouj carries an anti-Syrian refugee message [David Wood/Al Jazeera]

Many trace Lebanese Christian antipathy towards Syrian refugees to the community’s historical struggles against the Syrian regime. During the Lebanese Civil War, Christian militias fought bloody battles with Syria’s military. After the conflict, many Christians felt especially persecuted under Damascus’s subsequent occupation of Lebanon. The period’s bitter memories still linger.

Ramy, who wishes to avoid using his real name for safety reasons, is a Syrian refugee who has lived in the Beirut suburb of Dekwaneh since 2016. He says his Christian faith offers scant protection from Lebanese Christian vigilantes.

“Growing up in Hassakeh [in northeastern Syria], I believed Lebanon was a protector of Christians in the region,” he said. “But the moment that you say that you are Syrian, it’s over – that’s the trigger.”

Synaps director Simon stressed that these dangerous sentiments are not limited to Lebanese Christians.

"It would be a mistake [...] to overstate the sectarian dimension: non-Christian politicians have played a leading role in whipping up anti-Syrian sentiment, and diverse state institutions have been involved in cracking down on Syrians," he said.

In the summer of 2023, a particularly virulent strain of anti-Syrian rhetoric swept across Lebanon, culminating in a night of brutal mob attacks on Syrian refugees in the Beirut suburb of Doura. Soon after, Ramy reports he encountered an informal vigilante checkpoint on the lookout for any Syrians. His friend, a Lebanese citizen, implored the man who stopped the pair not to harm Ramy.

The vigilante allowed them to proceed but warned that Ramy should avoid the place from then on. His logic was simple: He could not guarantee that another vigilante would be so lenient.

Both Ramy and Hussein monitor Lebanese media for spikes in anti-Syrian rhetoric, which occurred both last summer and after Sleiman’s murder. Ramy often watches Sar al-Waqt (It’s Time) – a popular primetime political talk show – precisely because, he says, controversial host Marcel Ghanem “pumps hatred”.

“My brother asks me why I force myself to watch the show,” Ramy explained. “I tell him that I want to be updated, to know if trouble is coming.”

Alain Aoun, a parliamentarian with the Christian Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) draws the same link between media rhetoric and street violence, despite his own party’s vocal support for deporting Syrians from Lebanon.

“The media created the climate for the clash in Doura because everyone was getting angry about the Syrian presence here.”

Ramy stayed indoors in his apartment for several days following Sleiman's murder,  just in case, even though Dekwaneh remained relatively calm in his estimation.

Yet, that small mercy does not assuage Ramy’s fears for the future. “Syrian refugees are a card that Lebanese politicians will always use,” predicted Ramy. “[Rounds of violence] will be on and off all the time.”

The strain on the Bekaa

Man in traditional Syrian dress stands in front of a doorway
Abu Fares established a camp for fellow Syrian refugees near Bar Elias, a Sunni-majority town in the Bekaa Valley that is relatively more welcoming to Syrians [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]
Abu Fares established a camp for fellow Syrian refugees near Bar Elias, a Sunni-majority town in the Bekaa Valley that is relatively more welcoming to Syrians [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]

An hour's drive from Beirut lies the verdant Bekaa region, with sprawling farms that stretch from Lebanon’s central mountain range to the Syrian border. For many years, agricultural workers have come from Syria to tend the region’s fields. These days, the Bekaa Valley hosts 39 percent of Lebanon’s registered Syrian refugees - by far the highest regional proportion in the country.

The immense presence of Syrian refugees has strained Bekaa’s public infrastructure, which the cash-strapped Lebanese state already struggles to maintain.

At times, sewage and rubbish facilities have approached a breaking point. Local Lebanese highlight increased competition for jobs - a phenomenon that has grown more concerning with the onset of Lebanon’s crippling economic crisis - as another source of simmering tension.

The public finances crisis has also compromised the capacity of Lebanon’s security forces. The devaluation of officers’ salaries has led many either to resign or moonlight in second and third jobs. Meanwhile, budgets to maintain equipment - or even to fill vehicles with gasoline - fall far short of actual needs.

Across the country, the security forces increasingly rely on local actors, who are not employed by the state, to plug these widening gaps and help to maintain the peace. In the central Bekaa’s many informal tent settlements for Syrian refugees, the main such figure is the shawish, the designated leader for each camp.

Syrian refugee children sit inside a car with their family
Syrian refugee children in a car with their family as they wait to cross the border back home to Syria, in the eastern Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon, on October 26, 2022 [Hussein Malla/AP Photo]

Since 2013, Abu Fares, a Syrian refugee, has been the shawish for a large informal settlement of 140 tents, in a field just outside the town of Bar Elias, in central Bekaa, a roughly 30-minute drive away from the Syrian border. Like other shuwashaa (the plural of shawish), Abu Fares intervenes to resolve disputes involving camp residents.

“If anyone doesn't like living here, we tell them to leave immediately,” he explained. The shawish also informs Lebanese security forces about comings and goings in the camps and helps handle any conflict that might flare up with host communities.

As soon as anger started to spread over Sleiman’s death, Abu Fares and other shuwashaa reported receiving calls from the security forces requesting that, as a precaution, each shawish ensure that Syrian refugees remained safely inside their camps until the tide of public fury had ebbed.

According to Abu Fares, his longstanding coordination with Lebanese security forces bears certain social privileges. In one incident, he says, local authorities had wanted to impound a car he was travelling in with a Lebanese friend. Apparently, one officer - who knew Abu Fares from their frequent collaboration on security matters - persuaded his colleagues to let the matter slide.

“My friend wondered how Abu Fares - a displaced Syrian - could use his connections to keep a Lebanese car out of custody,” he recounted with a smile.

The camp’s residents generally enjoy harmonious relations with Bar Elias, even without Abu Fares’s personal authority. When interviewed, many local Lebanese ascribed the relatively welcoming environment in Bar Elias to cultural and economic ties that stretch back over time immemorial.

“We have relied since ancient times on trade with the Syrians,” said Hussein Beiruti, a Lebanese businessman. Beiruti adds that the inhabitants of Bar Elias, a Sunni-majority town, share many religious customs with the predominantly Sunni camp residents.

Abu Fares decided to establish his camp near Bar Elias based on fond memories from before the Syrian civil war, when he would come each year to Terbol - around 15 minutes by car from Bar Elias - as a seasonal agricultural worker. Relations remain “very good”, he says, between camp residents and their host community, despite the massive influx of refugees and Lebanon’s financial meltdown.

Bar Elias residents typically agreed. While noting that Syrian refugees had driven up local competition by opening their own shops and workshops, Beiruti and others acknowledged that those same Syrian businesses pay lucrative rents to Lebanese landlords, while also attracting foreign donors to invest in their community.

But not all communities in the area extend the same welcome. “The Bar Elias municipality does not bother Syrians,” remarked Abu Fares. “But the municipality of Zahle does.”

Zahle's chequered history with Syria

The shawish Hind poses at home in her camp just outside Saadnayel
Hind leads a camp near Zahle, the biggest city in the Bekaa, where the reception for Syrians is less friendly than in Bar Elias [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]
Hind leads a camp near Zahle, the biggest city in the Bekaa, where the reception for Syrians is less friendly than in Bar Elias [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]

The capital of the Bekaa governorate, Zahle’s urban sprawl climbs up into the foothills of the Lebanon mountains, offering sweeping views across central Bekaa’s agricultural plains, towns like Bar Elias and - more recently - a patchwork of informal tent settlements for Syrian refugees, scattered around the fields.

Zahle, a Christian-majority town, has a checkered history with Syria. Residents still recall the Syrian army laying siege to Zahle during the Lebanese civil war, battling against Lebanese Christian militiamen in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the town.

“Syria tried to enter our city by force,” said Maroun Ramia, a Christian Lebanese businessman in Zahle. “The Syrians have their ambitions in Lebanon, and this will never change.”

Some Syrian refugees report discomfort at times in Zahle. One female refugee claimed she and her friends have faced harassment for wearing the hijab in town; another Syrian woman alleged to have been told that she would never find a house to rent in Zahle, even though she has valid Lebanese residency papers.

While registered refugees are formally entitled to receive a residency permit in Lebanon, an abundance of red tape places these papers beyond the reach of most. According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, just 16 percent of Syrian households report that all members above 15 years of age are legal residents. For the rest, the resulting legal uncertainty makes many fearful of passing through military checkpoints, losing their homes or livelihoods, and being deported - grave risks that become built into their everyday lives.

Hind, a shawish of three camps near Saadnayel, often travels to neighbouring Zahle to shop.

“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked flatly. “I know my rights.”

Hind is officially registered with the UNHCR as a Syrian refugee but does not possess a Lebanese residency card.

According to her, she has never faced discrimination in Zahle, and she knows several refugees who enjoy friendships with Zahle residents. “But yes, these relationships are individual,” she said. “There aren't strong ties at the community level.”

Since Lebanon’s economic crisis began, Zahle’s authorities have applied residency and labour laws more stringently against Syrian refugees than Bar Elias has. For example, they have forced Syrians to close unlicensed stores, evicted Syrians from homes rented informally, and rounded up unregistered refugees for deportation.

These crackdowns reflect the wider political narrative recently evoked by Hajjar, the minister of social affairs - which claims that many Syrians do not have legitimate claims to refugee status but stay there for economic incentives like accessing foreign aid and undercutting Lebanese people by working illegally. Instead, this narrative alleges

“All these accusations are directed against us,” said Hind. “But we feed the economy […] whether in terms of [foreign] aid or spending our money here.”

Hind’s economic argument seemingly resonates with at least some of Zahle’s residents. At times, the authorities have reportedly evicted Syrian tenants from houses and shops in the Zahle municipality, only to rescind the decision shortly after. In these cases, the property owners had asked the authorities to reconsider, so that they could continue receiving rent from the Syrian tenants.

Ramia, the businessman, disputes how much Syrian refugees contribute to the region’s economy, claiming: “[Their] money goes to Syria […] they do not invest or spend it in Lebanon.” Nevertheless, he admits that his construction company relies heavily on Syrian labourers, who request lower wages and - in Ramia’s view - work harder than the typical Lebanese worker.

Abu Fares, who receives a tidy cut for dispatching his camp residents each day to work as farmhands, sees the same dependence in the agriculture sector. He claims that, as Syrian refugees grew worried after Sleiman’s murder, several Lebanese farmers contacted him to dismiss fears about his community’s safety - so that they would continue working.

Abu Fares mused: “Who will work and sow [the fields] for the farmer if the Syrians leave?”

No change on the horizon

A street in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon
Informal camps, such as the one Hind lives in near Saadnayel, have been set up in fields throughout Bekaa [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]
Informal camps, such as the one Hind lives in near Saadnayel, have been set up in fields throughout Bekaa [Raafat Nasser/Al Jazeera]

Even as the Lebanese news cycle moves on from Sleiman’s unsolved murder, the underlying sources of tension concerning Syrian refugees remain unaddressed.

Politicians have done little more than scapegoat refugees instead of seriously trying to identify genuine claims to asylum or better regulate refugees’ legal status in Lebanon.

On April 20, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea called the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon an “existential threat” to the country.

Geagea added that his party stands ready to provide “volunteers” to help local authorities carry out deportations if they lack the resources to do so alone.

And so it appears inevitable that the violent scenes will return whenever foul political winds blow in the direction of heaping blame on Syrians.

What is less certain is that Lebanon’s Syrian refugees will continue to avoid confrontation when faced with new rounds of persecution.

“Syrians are not going to take this forever,” said Ramy, the Dekwaneh resident. “It’s almost as though they want a Syrian to kill or stab someone […] to justify an escalation.”

Source: Al Jazeera