CounterPunch / January 11, 2021
When the civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, many Syrians fled across the western border to Lebanon. Thousands now live in Arsal, a remote town in the Bekaa valley, not far from the Syrian border.
Lebanon, a country of 6 million, hosts a large refugee population estimated at 1.5 million. As the economic situation in Lebanon has deteriorated due to inflation, reliance on imports, mass unemployment, and the port blast in August, tensions have grown between local Lebanese and refugees.
Anti-refugee rhetoric is often deployed by Lebanese politicians. In an interview last year, Gebran Bassil, the leader of the Lebanese Free Patriotic Movement and the Foreign Minister, said that “Most of the Syrians – much more than 75% – are no more in security and political fear, but are staying for economic reasons”.
Bassil added, “They are working in Lebanon, taking jobs from the Lebanese because they paid at a cheaper rate because they have no taxes to pay and they are being assisted on top of the wages they are paid.”
Lebanese authorities have attempted to make Lebanon an increasingly inhospitable environment for Syrian refugees, who are already excluded from the formal economy in Lebanon.
Last year, the Higher Defence Council, a body within the Lebanese army, issued an order that semi-permanent shelters that had been built by refugees in Arsal were to be demolished and replaced with more temporary ones.
As Arsal is in a mountainous part of Lebanon, with cold and unforgiving winters, many of the refugees who could afford to, had spent time and money improving their homes to make them warmer and rain resistant, including putting up cement walls.
Rather than provide written orders to refugees, the Lebanese authorities gave international organisations and charities instructions to pass to Syrian refugees regarding how their shelters should be dismantled and what structures should be built in place. The Lebanese authorities left NGOs to provide the material for the new shelters.
According to the order, the cement foundations that had been built by some refugees were to be removed. When the shelters were rebuilt, they were only to have a foundation five cinder blocks high. Roofs and walls must be made of timber beams, plastic sheeting or canvas. Interior walls could, at most, be thin plywood.
It was in this context that the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and International Rescue Committee (IRC) hired Syrian refugee Nabil Khallouf and his team of builders to dismantle the shelters of weakly, elderly and disabled Syrian refugees and replace them with more temporary structures. These refugees would not be able to dismantle them themselves, as per the order from the Lebanese authorities.
Since fleeing from Qalamoun in the east of Syria in 2014, Nabil has worked with Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA) and a number of other charities in Arsal. In particular, Nabil worked with EDA to create a vocational training program where both local Lebanese and Syrian refugees in Arsal can, free of charge, learn trade skills like cement making and carpentry, as well as mobile maintenance, hairdressing, sewing and first aid.
In recent years, Nabil, who worked in a bank in Syria before the outbreak of the civil war, began to manage a team of Syrians who trained as builders through the EDA program. Through working on projects in the local area, the team’s skill and reputation grew – which is how they came to the IRC and UNHCR’s attention for the camp demolition project.
Nabil said he and his team would sometimes work until 2 am during July and August last year in order to complete the demolition and rebuild as quickly as possible. “It was very hard”, says Nabil.
“Most of the camp residents understood why we had to do it”, says Margaret Tookey, a field officer with EDA and “we didn’t destroy all the water and sewage systems, whereas the Lebanese army was just coming in and smashing down homes.”
“It was heart-breaking” though, she adds, “we had quite a few people with mental disabilities who had no idea why we were doing this, and they were so distressed.”
When word of the port blast on 4 August spread to Arsal and Nabil saw images of the devastation, he discussed taking a team of builders down to Beirut to help with repairs with Green Helmets, a German construction NGO that works in Arsal.
Initially, Green Helmets provided USD 13,000 and EDA provided USD 10,000 for Nabil and his team to go and work in Beirut. The plan was to stay for three weeks but it was almost four months before Nabil would leave Beirut and return to Arsal.
When the team first arrived in Beirut, they set up a space for their makeshift glass and carpentry workshops in Karantina, a poor working-class neighbourhood near the port which has been devastated by the blast. For the first week, the team slept in Karantina.
There was a huge shortage of safe accommodation available in Beirut after the blast, so the team rented a house in Haramoon, an hour away from Beirut. As the house was so far from the port, the team found they were spending hours in Beirut’s notoriously bad traffic, which was even worse in the aftermath of the port blast.
After the first week, the municipal government in Beirut offered the team space in an industrial compound in Karantina that had previously been used to service refuse collection trucks. The compound is beside the fire station which lost several of its firemen when they responded to reports of a fire in the port on 4 August. They were instantly killed by the force of the explosion when the huge, improperly stored stockpile of ammonium nitrate ignited.
After two months of long commutes from Haramoon, the team decided to create a makeshift camp in the compound they were working in and stayed there for the final two months.
When one team member became ill and they feared he had contracted Covid-19, they created a makeshift isolation space. When the rain began and came through the badly damaged warehouse roof, the teams moved their window workshop across the compound.
“We became a hub”
Word of the work Nabil and his team were doing quickly spread and many other charities began referring people to their workshop in Karantina.
People would come to the workshops and provide details of the damage to their homes and their financial position. Margaret would then go out and conduct an assessment.
As well as providing windows and doors for 565 families, Nabil and his team created new windows for the offices of Beirut’s municipal government, the fire station in Karantina and also for the music conservatory in Bachoura.
The team of Syrian builders worked twelve hours a day without a day off, as they made and fitted windows for damaged homes.
Margaret said that EDA received donations from British students at the American University of Beirut who wanted to help their friends, as well as from the Rotary Club in the UK. In another case, an American family gave a donation. “People in Need”, a Slovakian charity also donated to EDA to help repair windows for homes.
In total, 2003 windows and 793 doors were supplied and fitted by Nabil and his team. EDA and the Green Helmets spent USD 49,000 on materials and labour for the repair project – a tiny amount of what was spent by many of the international NGOs in the aftermath of the port blast.
EDA paid Nabil a salary and his workers were each paid USD 20 per day, a little over the average local rate in Beirut of USD 17. EDI also provided the workers with a bonus halfway through their time in Beirut. “They were working so hard”, says Margaret, “we would have paid them more if we could”. Nabil received no overtime pay for his work in Beirut and rejected the offer of a bonus from EDA.
In November, after four months of long days repairing homes in Beirut, Nabil’s team returned to their families in Arsal. Winter had come by then and temperatures had dropped to close to degrees Celsius. Snow had begun to fall on the tents that had replaced the Syrian refugees’ homes that were demolished last year.
Despite the long period away from his family, Nabil had felt obliged to go to Beirut when he first saw the images and videos of the destruction caused by the port blast. When he arrived in the city in August, he said: “Beirut was worse than Arsal”.
In both Arsal and Beirut, the Lebanese government’s action and inaction have destroyed homes and places of refuge for many.
After the port blast, the deliberate destruction of some many homes in Arsal seems particularly senseless. Yet, the destruction of refugees’ homes in Lebanon continues. The day after Christmas, local youths burnt the tents of 350 Syrian refugees in a camp near Tripoli to the ground, after an altercation between a local family and some camp residents broke out.
With the economic situation continuing to deteriorate in Lebanon, many Syrian refugees fear for the environment that awaits them in Lebanon in the coming months.
Hannah McCarthy is an Irish journalist and lawyer currently based in Beirut