Beirut’s Dahiyeh: a home for many foreigners

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Artists in Dahiyeh paint murals in areas targeted by suicide bombers. (Photo: Haitham Mussawi)

By: Fatima Tormos

Published Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Despite having been the target of several bomb attacks in the past eight months, Beirut's southern suburbs or Dahiyeh, as it is commonly known, is still hosting many foreigners.

Half a million people, mostly Muslim-Shias and a Christian minority, call Dahiyeh home. Demographically, however, pre-1890 Dahiyeh was composed of a wider variety of confessional backgrounds. That changed during the 1975 civil war when an influx of Shia fleeing the constant Israeli attacks on their villages in south Lebanon settled in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Today, while some might be considering relocating due to the security situation, many locals and foreigners are determined to stay in Dahiyeh.

A sense of belonging

Mona, a math teacher in a school in Dahiyeh, is a Yemeni-American who has been living in Beirut’s southern suburbs for 13 years. Her husband is Lebanese, and although he is currently working in Ivory Coast, Mona is not considering leaving Lebanon, or Dahiyeh, anytime soon. She says her routine has not changed, she still drives her kids to school every day, then goes to work. “We cannot stay in our houses. We cannot keep thinking about the possibility of dying in an explosion every day,” Mona told Al-Akhbar.

When asked about her decision to stay in Lebanon, she cited her children’s education as her main priority, stating that English education is not affordable in Abidjan, and that she doesn’t want to jeopardize her children’s future. “I consider Lebanon my second country, and I cannot imagine myself living anywhere else but in Dahiyeh because I love the people here and I feel like I belong here. It is hard to describe the way I feel for Dahiyeh,” Mona said.

“I believe that standing up for what you believe in is important. I consider myself a supporter of the Resistance, and withstanding challenges is part of the Resistance” she continued.

A symbol of resistance and defiance

Dahiyeh witnessed its first act of resistance over 200 years ago when residents refused to pay land taxes demanded by Fakhr-al-Din II and threw the slave he sent to collect the money in a well, the neighborhood this took place in is now known as Bir al-Abed (The Well of the Slave). It also had its fair share of popular resistance during the Ottoman era and in 1913 lawyer Abd el-Kareem Khalil co-founded the armed Arab revolution alongside al-Sharif Hussein. Then, during the French mandate young men resisted French rule by shooting at a parade for General Henri Gouraud in Burj el-Barajneh, causing Gouraud to flee the area and never lay foot there again.

Between the start of Lebanon’s civil war in 1975, and the commencement of the Israeli invasion in 1978, there was a large movement of people from South Lebanon and the Bekaa who relocated to Dahiyeh.

They moved closer to the capital looking for work, as the local level of poverty and unemployment had become unbearable. Many realised their move was long-term as the Israeli occupation prevented them from returning to their towns and villages until the liberation of most of the south in 2000.

Having experienced first-hand the aggression against their homes and families, it seemed only natural for a culture of resistance to develop, and Dahiyeh witnessed, over the years, the growth and support of a varied range of resistance movements; from Palestinian groups, to leftist movements, eventually to groups like the Amal Movement and Hezbollah.

Dahiyeh has been bombarded twice by the Israeli air force. First in 1996 during the April War, when dozens were killed and wounded, and then again in the summer of 2006 during the July War. The second bombardment left 88 people dead, and hundreds injured, but also partially or completely destroyed 35 thousand apartments.

Despite the destruction, banners were hung after the war stating that, “even if all buildings fall down, Dahiyeh will never fall,” confirming the residents’ continued support for the Resistance. A few weeks later, reconstruction operations started and by the end of 2013 all buildings were rebuilt.

Family ties

Thirteen years ago, Mona moved from the US to Lebanon, settling in a house in Dahiyeh, where she has lived ever since. Mona said that when you live in Dahiyeh and get to know its people, it’s hard to leave, “I only left during the 2006 war. I came back after the war ended, but I never considered not coming back,” Mona declared. “I could have gone back to live in the US where my parents are, but I now have another family here.” Mona expresses her admiration of the bonds that family members and neighbors have in the southern suburb.

Dahiyeh is known for its many close-knit communities, as relatives tend to live close to each other and see one another frequently. It is common for neighbors to become akin to family, and help each other out in times of need. As the saying goes, “In Dahiyeh, everybody knows everybody.”

Faysal, a Sudanese janitor, has been working in Haret Hreik for eight years and lives in a room on the ground floor of the building he works in. “I am comfortable working in this building and the people who live here are nice,” Faysal told Al-Akhbar.

Faysal first came to Lebanon in 2001, and worked as a janitor at al-Nour radio station building until he had to go back to Sudan because of the 2006 war. When he came back in 2007, he worked in a restaurant in Jbeil, “I used to get paid US$ 600 a month and the manager was really nice, but I didn't feel like I belonged there,” Faysal said.

He explained that he prefers to live in a neighborhood where people share his cultural and religious values, adding that he didn’t feel comfortable serving alcohol at his previous job.

Faysal returned to Dahiyeh to work as a janitor although he is only getting paid around US$ 200 per month excluding his apartment. He considers Dahiyeh safe, “Why would I leave? I am comfortable; I feel welcomed here and I feel like I belong in this neighborhood. I am also planning to bring my wife and child to live with me,” Faysal said. Asked about the security issue in Dahiyeh, Faysal said that it does not affect his daily life, “dying in a bomb attack is one way to go, but not the only way. It could happen in Lebanon, Sudan or anywhere in the world,” he added.

Refugees from Beirut’s exorbitant rent prices

Mona and Faysal are only a couple of the many non-Lebanese who have made a home in Beirut’s southern suburb. Bahaa, a communication arts student, left Iran four years ago to study in Lebanon, and decided to live in Dahiyeh. “Before the attacks on Dahiyeh, it was safe and convenient for me because it’s affordable, and the location is ideal for me,” Bahaa said. “I can’t find an apartment outside Dahiyeh for the same price,” he added.

“The situation is not so bad that it makes me want to leave Dahiyeh and I believe the situation is getting better,” Bahaa said. “I want to graduate before I leave Lebanon, I do not want all my hard work to go to waste,” he continued. Bahaa said that he knows several foreigners who were living in Dahiyeh, but went back to their countries due to fear of the current situation.

“Of course if I hear an explosion near my house, I will get scared and panic a little,” he said, but added that he would just find out where it took place by turning on his television, “It’s that simple.”

Some people left for good and others are waiting for the situation to get better to return, but Bahaa says that, “When you actually live in the area you know what is really going on. When you look at it from the outside you see things from a different perspective.” He added that, “it is not so bad when you look at it from the inside.”

However, he has started to take precautions. For example, he no longer walks around in Dahiyeh unless he has to, and spends most of his time outside the suburb. “Everyone has to be careful, but you cannot let fear control your daily life,” Bahaa said. Security precautions enforced by the army have also made life there more difficult as checkpoints at the entrances of Dahiyeh are causing traffic jams.

Um Mohammed and her family came to Lebanon from Syria a few months before the start of the conflict. When asked about the dangers of living in Dahiyeh and the terrorist attacks that have recently hit the area, she said, “It is not easy living in an atmosphere of fear, but you cannot let fear control your life.” Umm Mohammed spends most of her day outside the house working, “I just try not to think about the possibility of dying in a car bomb, there is nothing else that I can do,” she added.

Um Mohammed has been living in Dahiyeh for almost a year, she says that renting an apartment in Dahiyeh is cheaper compared to other areas that she used to live in. In fact, rental prices in Dahiyeh have recently decreased by up to 20 percent because of the security situation, and the recurring bombings.

“I am not afraid of dying because what I am suffering from right now is worse,” she said. She has several jobs, including washing dishes in a restaurant, knitting clothes, and working in a paper factory. “I work many jobs at the same time so I can provide food and shelter for my family,” Um Mohammed said.

Mona, Faysal, Bahaa, and Um Mohammed all call Beirut’s southern suburbs home for different reasons. They also all chose to stay despite the security threats the area is currently facing. However, they all confront fear with the same thought, “You might die no matter where you live and when you do it will be God’s will.”

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