Protesters hold a candlelight vigil for two Syrian workers who died in a building fire following riots. Downtown Beirut, Lebanon. October 20, 2019. (Mohamad Cheblak/The Public Source)

Protesters hold a candlelight vigil for two Syrian workers who died in a building fire following riots. Downtown Beirut, Lebanon. October 20, 2019. (Mohamad Cheblak/The Public Source)

From Hope To Dismay: How Crises Affect Syrians in Lebanon

Day 191: Friday, April 24, 2020.

“Comparing the Lebanese uprising to what we had in Syria,” K paused to inhale his cigarette, “is like comparing the height of a building to the speed of a train… But as I watch what is happening in Lebanon, I cannot help but feel hope,” he added, smoke slowly seeping from his mouth, on a bright sunny morning in the first week of December — now seemingly a lifetime ago.

Twenty days later, K sent me photos of his face and neck covered in cuts and bruises, followed by a message, his voice cracking as he tried to control his emotion: “I was crossing the street when a motorcycle almost hit me. I started arguing with the driver and suddenly a crowd gathered around us. They started insulting me, then hitting me. I was able to break loose and run… Why does this happen?”

Like K, other Syrians living in Lebanon have found their hope turn to dismay in the aftermath of the Lebanese uprising that erupted in October. For the hopeful, the uprisings were a natural and symbolic continuation of the region-wide struggle for self-determination that arose full force almost a decade ago. Chants and songs first heard in Syria’s uprising were remixed for the Lebanese context. Public declarations of solidarity between Lebanon and Idlib emerged. In that spirit, some Syrians in Lebanon lent their support as best they could, sharing their own experiences from the Syrian context, or participating as cautiously as possible in the protests. “The uprising in Lebanon is beautiful, it reminds me of the early days of the uprising in Syria, and gives me more hope about the future in Syria,” said H, barely containing a wide smile, in the early days of the uprising.  

Others were less hopeful. Scarred by the Syrian experience, they were haunted by the possibility of large-scale violence erupting. “Haven't they learned from us? These men [in power] will not leave peacefully, I don't think the Lebanese are ready for a fight, and sectarianism is still strong. If things continue, it will be as bad as it was for us,” said D. Their fears were compounded by street manifestations of Lebanese exclusionary nationalism and praise for the Lebanese military, two components often deployed violently against Syrians’ presence.

Syrians in Lebanon have experienced rising waves of hostility over the past year, whether through daily acts of harassment, mob violence — such as last June when at least 50 men attacked an informal refugee camp in the Beqaa valley, forcing hundreds of Syrian refugees to leave — or through an increase in enforced deportations. These developments followed a pattern since the start of the Syrian war of increasing hostility and discrimination against Syrian refugees and workers in Lebanon, who are blamed for insecurity, decaying infrastructure, and the economic crisis; regardless of all evidence to the contrary

With every mounting crisis in Lebanon, Syrians — like Palestinian refugees and migrant workers, particularly domestic workers from African and Asian countries — face increasing restrictions on daily life, with no avenues to articulate or actively resist these challenges. These compound into growing anxieties over an existential question: If not Lebanon, then where? “I don't know what to do about the future,” K said during our conversation in December. “I can't go back to Syria because I'll be forced into the military. I can't go anywhere else because no one is accepting me as a refugee, and it seems that it's becoming harder to stay in Lebanon.”

A striking example of the lack of agency for Syrians residing in Lebanon was the death of Ibrahim Younis and Ibrahim Hussein, two Syrian workers, on the first night of the uprisings. They had been sleeping in a shop in downtown Beirut when protesters set it on fire, and died of smoke inhalation. In the days that followed, Lebanese activists held a vigil and proclaimed them both “martyrs of the revolution.” As commendable and well-intentioned as these acts may be, they are fleeting. Younis and Hussein’s deaths certainly do not occupy the same place in the public narrative as those of Lebanese citizens during the protests. A more problematic implication of this particular tragedy is how even well-intentioned acts, such as deeming the victims “martyrs,” are decided without the inclusion of the victims’ families. Crucially, no compensation was provided to the families, nor was anyone held accountable. The matter, like the bodies themselves, was put to rest.

With every mounting crisis in Lebanon, Syrians — like Palestinian refugees and migrant workers, particularly domestic workers from African and Asian countries — face increasing restrictions on daily life, with no avenues to articulate or actively resist these challenges.Naturally, crises do not affect all Syrians in Lebanon equally, given class differences, and how these shape their positionality towards the Lebanese uprising. While there are no comprehensive studies on class dynamics among Syrians in Lebanon, it is apparent that middle or upper class residents are able to avoid or at least weather the stigmatization, given that it is mainly directed at the poor. 

Lebanon’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is the latest manifestation of the pattern of discrimination against Syrians, intertwining new public health concerns with familiar xenophobic politics. Syrians living in Lebanon were the first to be placed under forced quarantine in the Beqaa prior to the national declaration of emergency. These discriminatory measures have since extended to at least 21 municipalities throughout the country, according to Human Rights Watch

Just as this health crisis may illustrate the ongoing failure of the Lebanese state to its own citizens, it also reveals critical gaps in medical resources and health infrastructure to treat Syrian refugees, and other vulnerable communities like Palestinian refugees and migrant domestic workers. For example, on March 22 the Lebanese General Security announced it was disinfecting and sterilizing 72 Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. But an April 8th report by Syria Direct notes severe shortcomings of this campaign: it fails to include many refugee camps; sterilization procedures have covered only the grounds of the camps and not the inside of tents; medical testing is not available in camps; and quarantine policies are inadequate (the report cites a Syrian medical source in Arsal who stressed that the one room provided by the municipality of Arsal to quarantine Syrian refugees is still under construction). 

Lebanon’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic is the latest manifestation of the pattern of discrimination against Syrians, intertwining new public health concerns with familiar xenophobic politics.UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, plans to combat the virus by “strengthening the capabilities of the Lebanese health sector by providing medicines and creating additional wards in hospitals with more beds in intensive care units so that there isn’t a competition between different communities in Lebanon.” It is also “prepared to cover the costs of medical examination and treatment fees in the event of recorded cases.” But despite UNHCR’s assurances, it is difficult to be optimistic, given Lebanese hospitals’ policy of turning away undocumented individuals in need of treatment. Already in mid-March, a Syrian woman who manifested Covid-19 symptoms was denied treatment by several hospitals in northern Lebanon, dying as a result. 

Meanwhile, the multi-faceted upheavals in Lebanon have already weakened non-governmental organizations’ ability and capacity to meet the needs of Syrian refugees in the country. As the Center for Operational Analysis and Research noted in mid-November: “Restrictions on money transfers and the recurrent closure of banks have introduced logistical and financial challenges to Lebanon-based actors, and organizations are already encountering difficulties conducting money transfers within Lebanon, implementing cash-based programs, and making salary payments … Interruptions to cash support will have an immediate impact, while there are signs that Lebanese have sought out real estate as a financial safe haven; in the long term, an overheated housing market will only add to the financial burdens borne by vulnerable Syrian populations, whose few economic lifelines are already at risk.”

Considering the immense struggle the Lebanese themselves face to claim the basic rights denied to them, it is understandable why these shortcomings exist vis-a-vis Syrians in Lebanon. To their credit, numerous organizations, activists, and supporters have been fighting for a more accessible and inclusive foundation to the uprising. So far, however, this element of the fight is not widespread. The experiences of Syrians, like other non-Lebanese (notably the Palestinians), and how they are involved or affected by the uprising is a crucial test for the Lebanese uprising, and how revolutionary it can be.