Voice

Beirut Is a Shambles, and Only Refugees Are Helping

The country’s government is AWOL, international donors are wary—but the country’s most reviled residents are making all the difference.

A boy walks with jugs of water in a poor neighborhood with a high concentration of Syrian refugees on June 27, 2013 in Beirut, Lebanon.
A boy walks with jugs of water in a poor neighborhood with a high concentration of Syrian refugees on June 27, 2013 in Beirut, Lebanon. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Syrian workers are rebuilding blast-hit areas in Beirut, one window at a time. Often reviled by politicians for allegedly burdening the civic infrastructure, stealing jobs, and living off subsidies meant for the Lebanese, Syrian refugees have shown up in Lebanon’s hour of need. They are building windows, repairing doors, painting houses, and replacing glass in high-rise apartment buildings—some of which belong to the same Lebanese who have long rooted for the refugees to leave.

For all their manual labor, they have received only a pittance—payment further devalued by a plummeting Lebanese pound that has lost 80 percent of its value since a year ago. But more bothersome for many is the continued lack of respect. Hardly any of the refugees toiling to resurrect Beirut to its former glory believe their contribution will be remembered when the story of the city’s resurgence is told.

Almost three months after thousands of tons of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut’s port and damaged many districts popular with locals and tourists, much of the city still lies in ruins. The international community has so far only provided minimal emergency aid, including basic help with housing. “Shelter rehabilitation works are the last step in UNHCR’s response,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, the spokesperson of the U.N. refugee agency managing the humanitarian response of several of its international and local partners.

“While UNHCR recognizes the impact of the blast on businesses and challenges business owners face, UNHCR’s current response is focusing on ensuring people have safe and secure living conditions, particularly prior to the winter season,” Abou Khaled said. The international agency has provided 6,500 weatherproofing kits and $600 in cash assistance to over a thousand families (about 4,000 people) and intends to reach out to 10 times more. The U.S. government has routed medical and food aid through agencies while the Germans are supporting a soup kitchen and promised to spend a million euros on a farmers market. “Rebuilding the market secures the livelihoods of around 100 smallholders,” a spokesperson for the German development agency GIZ said.

The efforts, numerous and well meant, fall far short of what is required to rebuild and revive the city. The United Nations estimates that 219,000 individuals living in 73,000 apartments located across 9,100 buildings were directly impacted by the explosion. None has received any help from the government, and most have yet to receive support from international agencies to rebuild their homes and shops.

A senior diplomatic source told Foreign Policy that the international community, led by the French, is currently searching for potential partners with which to coordinate the major reconstruction projects. In most other countries, since the government is the biggest administrator and answerable to its people, funds are directed through it. But in Lebanon people have lost trust in the political elite and don’t want any aid or investment to be channeled through the government. “To fund the next phase of reconstruction, there needs to be a local entity approved by someone in authority—that will have to be the government of the day, I’m afraid. We can’t think of who else it could be, although the World Bank is working on possible alternative mechanisms,” the diplomat said, “but the international community certainly wants political activists from the civil society to be a part of this entity.”

Moreover, the international funding for the next phase of reconstruction is intricately linked to reforms that the government has been asked to usher in. Saad Hariri, who returned as prime minister last week, has promised to unveil reforms, but he has still failed to present his cabinet, and further details have not been forthcoming.

As the political elite quarrels over ministries and the international community scrambles to help, Syrian workers are visible on the streets. They have proved to be more reliable for home- and business owners who have, on their own, started to slowly repair their damaged properties.

Syrians, too, died in the catastrophe and left behind desperate families. At least 40 were killed in the blast, hundreds were injured, and eight are still hospitalized. Ayman al-Homsi, a delivery boy for a restaurant, was killed by a huge shard of glass that slashed him while he was driving on Gemmayze Street. His uncle, Akram al-Homsi, has been grappling with many long-term ailments and said Ayman was the sole breadwinner of the family. He provided for Akram’s five children, his parents in Syria, and a newlywed wife. “Now my 13-year-old daughter is forced to work at a sewing shop to earn for us,” Akram said.

The living conditions of Syrians in Lebanon deteriorated in tandem with their hosts, but since they were already the bottom rung of society, it pinched them harder. A recently released study by the International Labour Organization said Syrians were worst off during the coronavirus lockdown too. Sixty percent of Syrian respondents were laid off during the lockdown, and higher layoffs were found among self-employed workers, the study found.

Many like Akram find themselves trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea: The Lebanese want them gone, and Bashar al-Assad’s regime is discouraging their return by making it more expensive. “It costs each person a PCR test [for COVID-19], then $100 entry fees to Syria, in addition to the transportation costs. We are six people. It will cost me a fortune to return.”

Activists fear that the pre-blast meager earnings of 200,000 Syrians who live in the capital have downgraded sharply as the explosion punctured a gaping hole in the pockets of the Lebanese. According to UNHCR, the proportion of refugees living in extreme poverty jumped from 55 percent to 80 percent in recent months.

Abdul Latif has been painting damaged houses in Geitawi, another area in East Beirut that bore the brunt of the blast. His home in Deir Ezzor in Syria was destroyed by regime shelling, and while he thought he found safety in Lebanon, the port explosion smashed the doors and windows of his rented accommodation in Karantina, next to the harbor. For Latif, it was like losing his home all over again. He earned 45,000 Lebanese pounds a day, which used to be about $30 before the economic crisis in Lebanon; now it is roughly between $5 and $6. He says he does not make enough to rebuild his home in Syria, but painting the homes of his hosts gives him solace. “At such a time, it’s not about what the Lebanese pay us, but it would be nice if our Lebanese landlord would repair his house that we live in.”

Some Lebanese, however, take the Syrians’ hard work for granted, seeing it as purely transactional. A manager at a pub that is among the very few to rebuild and reopen, thanks to online donations and the long hours put in by Syrian workers, said Syrians have always been construction workers in Lebanon and for their own benefit. “They get paid for it. That is why they do it,” he said.

Nasser Yassin, a professor at the American University of Beirut and a political analyst, said that even though the refugees have been adding productively to Lebanon’s economy and stand ready to contribute whatever skills they are allowed to exhibit, wider public perception is unlikely to change. “Anti-refugee narratives are constructed over time by populist politicians, and they are not going to stop using the anti-refugee card even though it is the refugees rebuilding the destroyed homes,” Yassin said.

There is, of course, nothing unusual about the views of the pub manager. They are common in Beirut, where discrimination is a daily part of Syrians’ lives. But the hidden roots of this hostility are political. Lebanon’s fate has always been inextricably intertwined with its Syrian neighbor, but the recent record of machinations by Syrian governments to control Lebanon—by deploying boots on the ground in the 1970s, propping up proponents of a unified greater Syria, and exerting influence through its ally Hezbollah—has infuriated many Lebanese. The long Syrian civil war led 1.5 million Syrians to flee to Lebanon, further straining the relationship. “It is the Syrian regime we oppose,” the pub manager said, “because it works with forces inside Lebanon that have ruined our country.”

There is hope that the Beirut blast might allow the neighbors to rebuild a renewed understanding of one another. Mohammad Ahmad, a mason, was busy restoring a pillar in an art deco house near the port minutes before the explosion hit. He escaped with his life, but the blast triggered some haunting memories. “It was as if I was back in Syria. Beirut resembled a bombed Syrian city,” he said. “I know what it feels like to lose your neighborhood.”

Anchal Vohra is a Beirut-based columnist for Foreign Policy and a freelance TV correspondent and commentator on the Middle East. Twitter: @anchalvohra

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