Foreign Workers: The Scapegoats of Bourj Hammoud
By: Ahmed Mohsen
Published Thursday, November 3, 2011
Recent xenophobic media campaigns and forced evictions targeting foreign workers of Beirut’s Burj Hammoud district ignore the struggle over space, profit, and political authority behind the tension between locals and foreigners.
Fifteen people live in a 3m by 4m room on the rooftop of a three-story building in Bourj Hammoud, a suburb of Beirut. The number is staggering, and, one would think, exaggerated, had neighbors not suggested breaking into the room to verify this information. But lately the numbers of occupants have gone down, though not enough to satisfy the Bourj Hammoud municipality.
‘Foreigners’ continue to be a ‘problem’ even if municipality officials try to speak in general terms, saying that “15 people in one room, whether foreigners or Lebanese, is humanly unacceptable.”
These officials say that they have to take decisive action before the situation “explodes.”
Bourj Hammoud as a residential area is divided into two parts, Arax and Marash. The commercial district in Arax is not frequented by foreigners, the implication being that they are not welcomed there. There is also Marash’s popular market, where grains and food stuffs are sold and which looks like a lower-middle class area, as street vendors spread their merchandise alongside the main street. But Bourj Hammoud seems quiet, whether one visits the commercial district, the neighborhood’s economic center, or the popular market, from which the streets — home to the latest ruckus about foreigners — branch off.
The Lebanese army and internal security forces in the past two weeks engaged in a wide campaign of arrests, at one point detaining an estimated 1,000 people in one night.
All those arrested were foreigners. And by foreigners, “we don’t mean strictly Kurds,” says Bourj Hammoud mayor, Antranik Meserlian, who expressed his surprise at claims that Kurds have been expelled from Bourj Hammoud. He believes there are political reasons behind the fuss raised around this issue, accompanied by the media campaign reflecting anger at foreigners.
Based on the law of municipal fees and allowances, the municipality asked landlords and tenants this past June, as it does every year, to register leases in a timely manner and present vacancy and end of ownership permits. But “no one responded,” said Meserlian, who then corrected himself saying, “the overwhelming majority did not respond.”
Mayor: The Kurds Are Not Targeted
The problem supposedly is not with Kurds or with foreigners per se. According to Meserlian, “less than a quarter of the detainees are Kurds and the rest are illegal residents.” If there are political reasons for these arrests, he adds, then the army should be held responsible, not the people of Bourj Hammoud.
An expert on rent issues in the municipality says the recent problem is between the municipality and the landlords. Three years ago, the number of foreigners in Bourj Hammoud increased, which was not a problem in and of itself, he says. The mayor insisted the issue has no racist or cultural background to it. On the contrary, he reminded us that Egyptian workers lived in harmony with the people of the neighborhood and were always welcomed guests.
The problem, he says, is that foreigners’ humanitarian conditions are unsustainable. The overcrowded houses are in bad shape and their hygienic conditions are dangerous. He explained that the residents of Bourj Hammoud have for a long time been complaining about on-going harassment by foreign workers. Even though the municipality and the people understand the difficult conditions that these workers face, nevertheless, they are fed up with their behavior.
The mayor mentioned a series of incidents, from assaulting a young woman to harassing another to public intoxication, and so on. But the Lebanese engage in this kind of behavior as well. What made matters worse, according to the mayor is that housing conditions are illegal and the municipality is expected to take action on that issue, in particular. That is why these latest measures were taken, which transformed the crisis from an administrative issue between the municipality and the landlords, to a dispute between the municipality and landlords on one hand, and the tenants on the other.
Landlords say they do not make money if they rent out to families. The 15 people in one room are not a unique case. The landlords rent out as many rooms as they can to foreigners because they charge ‘per head.’ The expression ‘per head’ is said to be commonly used in Bourj Hammoud, especially among landlords. Foreigners are charged anywhere between US$50-60. The total rent for a cheap room inhabited by 15 people in a neglected neighborhood would then be around US$750 per month, a price that no family can afford.
Landlords used to manipulate the records according to a source in the municipality. They would register a room in the name of one worker who has a legal residency permit, while they rented the room to more people who would pay under the table. But the problem of residency permits in Lebanon is endemic.
The government announcement plastered on old buildings makes it clear that the municipality and security forces have decided end to this manipulation, and they will periodically inspect rented apartments to do so. But that is something that the landlords and the workers could not tolerate. Until now, the problem is still playing out legally, between a municipality eager to restore its reputation and landlords who care neither about the consequences of overcrowding nor about Kurds or any other group for that matter.
Poor People Hosted by Poor People
Overcrowding begins after four, as workers file into their wretched homes. They all fear the media. One person thought a photographer was a member of the public security forces, so he handed him his Syrian ID. Another snuck into an alley as soon as he saw a camera.
One Sudanese man did speak up. He denied feeling any pressure from locals. The people in Bourj Hammoud are good, he said. He had been working at a restaurant for two years and no one bothered him, but sometimes he felt that the young men who wore big crosses around their necks hated him. He did not understand why but he did not hold a grudge against them. He sympathizes with residents, because they are poor like him. His problem was with the Lebanese authorities, which have not recognized his refugee status, and the internal security forces scare him. He heard about the death of an Ethiopian woman last week but he did not make much of it. These problems happen all the time here, he said.
In the quiet inner streets of Bourj Hammoud, two young Kurdish men empty a car trunk next to an old shop, in which an Armenian craftsman carried on with the his family tradition of of abrading leather under a huge picture of the three men who established the Armenian Tashnaq party.
Outside the shop, three other workers snuck to their home on the ground floor. Their tired features made them look almost indistinguishable. There was also a kaak street vendor who was forced by the municipality policeman near one of the entrances of Arax street to leave. The policeman asked to see his ID. The vendor said, “I am Lebanese from Tripoli.” But his friendly Tripoli accent did not help him. The policeman made him leave because there is a decision to prohibit carts on Arax street. In the inner streets, the policeman does not seem as cruel. A friendly atmosphere characterizes that part of the neighborhood, even between the policeman and some workers who seem to comply with his orders.
Everyone in Bourj Hammoud tries to say that they are not parochial and inward looking. An elder who is familiar with the history of the area points to a wall that has a cross with a diagonal cut at the base — a symbol of the Lebanese Forces — saying: “here lives a family from Bsharri and next to it lives the Srour family from the South and the worker in that shop is Kurdish.” In his opinion, a recent TV report that covered the issue of foreign workers in the area did a lot of damage. Angered, he turned his sights on the Future Movement, out of no where saying, “Hariri has gobbled everything.”
A Historically Mixed Area
When talking about the make-up of Bourj Hammoud, it is necessary to view how the area developed. During World War I, there were only a few houses, and mostly swamps and orchards. Armenians fled there from the brutality of the Ottoman authorities. The elders affirm that the Armenian community developed modern Bourj Hammoud. This might be a common impression among people who do not know much about the area except for its Armenian character.
But Meserlian says that Bourj Hammoud is a mix of nationalities, sects, and social groups. He remembers how displaced Lebanese Shia also came to Bourj Hammoud in the early days of its development after the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 and the repeated Israeli attacks on villages in South Lebanon. After the Nakba, Palestinians too came to Bourj Hammoud. Meserlian also pointed to the economic migration from North Lebanon, and specifically from the province of Bsharri, a community that represents the core of Lebanese Forces supporters in the area. Yet the large Armenian population has determined the political identity of Bourj Hammoud. This allowed the neighborhood, with its mix of people, to remain immune from the sectarian insanity of the Lebanese civil war.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.