Akkar and the Syrian Refugees: Love and Loathing
By: Doha Shams
Published Thursday, November 7, 2013
Perhaps the best description of what is happening in Akkar today, regarding the Syrian refugees, would be to say that the latter’s supposed “nurturing environment” is rebelling against them. Two and a half years after welcoming the first Syrian refugee, it seems that the people of the north Lebanese district of Akkar are fed up with the guests “who have overstayed their welcome.” Even local mayors are raising their voices to make just one demand: “We want Akkar free of Syrian refugees.” How did Akkar’s erstwhile love affair with the refugees turn into loathing? The story begins – and ends – with material interests.
Akkar – It is a social coup. True, it was expected, if only for purely economic reasons, but when it finally happened, it was surprising how sharply it came. Just to hear local officials – in the villages and towns that have always been seen as bastions for Syrian refugees, including for armed Syrian opposition fighters and their sympathizers – call for an Akkar “free of Syrian refugees” is beyond shocking.
Akkar’s earlier sympathies reflected the region’s desire for a belated revenge against the Syrian regime, which had delivered the people of Akkar (and elsewhere) many injustices. But the guests have overstayed their welcome in Akkar. People now even say, “We were occupied by the Syrian regime. Now, we are occupied by the Syrian people!”
A visitor bound for Akkar has no choice but to pass through the Malouleh roundabout in Tripoli. There, we saw the army starting to deploy along Syria Street, the de facto demarcation line between archrivals Jabal Mohsen and Bab al-Tabbaneh. As tanks lined up along each intersection, my colleague from Akkar said, “Look carefully. There are no soldiers on foot. They are all inside the tanks. This means that the deployment is not real.” As we traversed the roundabout, we saw among the many signs one welcoming the return of the bodies of Lebanese asylum seekers who had drowned in Indonesia.
Here, in the villages of the Qaytei Municipal Union, non-stop meetings take place. The impoverished northern province, which had just finished burying the bodies of the migrants who all hailed from Akkar, no longer has room for refugees – many of whom seem to be now, thanks to aid, better off than their hosts. Karl Marx is once again vindicated: What sectarian-political solidarity once brought closer together, economy and material interests are taking apart.
What we heard in Akkar revealed almost unbridled hatred toward the refugees, with some “envy” thrown in. Indeed, local and international interest in the refugees has frustrated their historically marginalized hosts.
In the town of Muhammara, which has a population of no more than 2,000, residents grumble that it has been compelled to host 360 Syrian families out of the half million refugees that are currently present in Akkar. Mukhtar Ahmad Salma, sitting at his home, said, “When you say a family, you have to multiply it by seven on average.” I do a mental calculation based on this: 2,520 people. In other words, the refugees outnumber the townsfolk.
A few days ago, residents of Muhammara blocked the international highway in protest, after a local company replaced its Lebanese workers with cheaper Syrian manpower. To be sure, the daily wage of a Lebanese worker is 35,000 Lebanese lira ($23), while a Syrian earns no more than 15,000 lira ($10).
Like many in the town, Salma rents out flats to the refugees. “I have a family from Jobar in Syria. In truth, this family is actually seven families rolled into one,” he claimed. He then proposed, “Come and see them – 26 people living in a 120 square meter flat. I felt sorry for them, so I let them stay for free in the beginning for four months.” He continued, “But we need to feel sorry for ourselves first. All roads, because of the fighting in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, are cut off most of the time. No trade, no business, and nothing takes place.”
We oblige and go. After climbing an unfinished concrete flight of stairs with Salma’s wife, we knock on the door and enter, leaping over a pile of shoes at the threshold, into the impeccably clean interior of the flat.
An old woman took us along with a “battalion” of children to an interior room that was completely bare save for some torn foam mattresses placed over plastic rugs. We asked them, as they gathered around us, about their situation with the Lebanese, and they gave us a lackluster smile. Hanadi, 30, says, “They tell us you caused a crisis in Lebanon and you took our jobs. They tell us Bashar [al-Assad] did not wrong you, you wronged yourselves. And then they tell us, why did you start this revolution anyway?”
Hanadi continues, “It is not us who started the revolution. We are a helpless people, and we are caught between the two. You know what? I don’t want freedom. I want to live … We had the best life, spending only a little, and everything was provided, not like here. May God never forgive those who were the reason. This is a revolution of ruin, not freedom! They ruined everything, made children orphans, and burned mothers’ hearts.”
Upon mention of mothers’ hearts, the old woman begins to cry. She lost a son a few months ago. I look at her shaking hands and her clean fingernails. She looks sorrowful and has a look of someone who was once better off and now lives in humiliation. We asked them how they manage in this small home, and the old woman replies, “We are 26 people, and we have divided ourselves like they do in the military: men and women apart.”
She continued, “Our big problem is rent. $300 is too much. We have to worry about this with every new month. Where can we get it? Bless all the Lebanese, but I don’t like to ask.”
We return to Salma and ask him about rumors of robberies perpetrated by refugees, and he replies, “Nothing of the sort happened here. But in Bebnine, a woman was drugged by a Syrian lady who then robbed her house.”
Bebnine is the biggest town here. Even though many Syrian opposition fighters originated from this town – most notably Abdul-Ghani Jawhar, the al-Qaeda commander killed in Qusayr – Bebnine seems to be the most fed up with the refugees.
The town, home to 40,000 people, depends mainly on farming and fishing. What drew us to Bebine was a statement from its mayor, demanding the town be declared a “refugee-free” zone. The mayor even expressed his concern over repeated clashes between the refugees and the townsfolk.
We met a young man who runs a photocopy shop. We were looking for the mukhtar, but he was out of town. The young man, who asked not to be named, said, “We offset our economic crisis in Lebanon thanks to Syrian customers.” Finally, someone who sees the glass half full. “Of course, I am talking about my own business. We have around 9,000 refugees who all need to photocopy paperwork regularly. I am sure I’m the only one who has benefited from them.”
On a hill connected by random alleyways lies the rather beautiful town hall. We were not able to meet with the mayor, who apparently was out offering his condolences for the day, but he had instructed his aides to give us some figures. Municipal contractor Dib al-Kassar, who spoke to Al-Akhbar, said there are nearly 9,000 refugees in Bebnine, adding, “We have 1,400 Syrian families with an average of seven persons per family, so we have around 9,000 refugees.”
What do they live on? Kassar said, “Aid from charities and food vouchers from the United Nations. There is no money. But the International Rescue Committee gave visa cards to around 200 families each worth $200 a month for six months.” But he quickly added, “Of course, the municipality asked, in return, for aid to needy Lebanese, and received the same amount but for four months only.”
This young man who was asked to help us seemed afraid of making any wrong statements. For example, he denied that there had been clashes between Lebanese and Syrians because of competition over jobs and aid. However, recall that the mayor himself had stated that there were many clashes, and also was the one to say that he wanted Bebnine free of Syrian refugees.
On this note, we left Bebnine, heading toward other villages. We noticed blankets hanging between abandoned and unfinished buildings on both sides of the road, used as makeshift doors and windows. The presence of children playing outside in the dirt and mud puddles confirmed that there were many refugees taking shelter inside.
In Sahel Minyara, we went to the ranch of the town’s mayor Antoun Abboud. We spoke to the housekeeper until the mayor arrived. After we exchanged greetings, he said, with a sigh, “Many of the people who came here are decent, but there are also people … one is ashamed to say … people who are scum. Robberies, decadence, filth. Some refugees returned to their villages when the situation there improved, but some came here to exploit aid. They phone their friends and tell them to come and that life here is easy.”
The mayor distinguishes between the Syrian workers who have been coming to Lebanon for a long time to help out during harvests, and those he calls “aid parasites.” But the most dangerous thing, according to Abboud, is “the aid money being thrown at the Syrians.” How so? He said, “Because they give Lebanese land owners 100,000 lira ($66) for each tent they allow to be erected on their lands.” And? Does this not help the Lebanese? “People now take out their crops to rent out tents,” he answered. “Some people have even seized lands whose owners are abroad to rent them out, and it will be very difficult to evict them,” he added.
Abboud told us about a botched attempt by Syrian refugees to rob cement mixers he owned, during which a guard was killed. “It’s unbearable. The interior minister tells us to put a curfew on Syrians traveling by motorcycle at night. But who can enforce this? I told them I am a Christian, and if I dare tell a refugee that motorcycles are prohibited after 7 pm, how will Khaled Daher and Mouin Merhebi react?” in reference to the two Sunni MPs who are staunch supporters of the Syrian opposition. “These days, even Lebanese Muslims can’t say anything to them,” he claimed.
Abboud then concluded by telling us an anecdote. “A British officer from the UN came to me to lease land for refugee tents, for one year only. I told him: Dear, you put a camp in Naher al-Bared in 1948 temporarily, but it still stands to this day. You are a bunch of liars. He was angry, and he left. Good riddance.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.