“First I lost my home in Aleppo, and then I lost my home in Beirut.”
As Lebanon grapples with a worsening economic crisis, COVID-19 and the aftermath of August’s catastrophic explosion in the port of Beirut, Yasmin Kayali believes that the status of refugees in the country has never been so precarious.
“Before the explosion, 60-65 per cent of the refugee population lived below the extreme poverty line,” she says. “Now, after the explosion, it’s estimated to be around 90-95 per cent …. They all lost their jobs and so they have no source of income. Other than that, you then also have large parts of the community who even lost their homes.”
A co-founder of Basmeh & Zeitooneh, an organisation that advocates and provides support for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq, Yasmin worked to deliver emergency aid, hot meals, and rebuilding assistance to people whose lives were devastated by the explosion. Many of them were refugees, living in shelters close to the port.
Caused by an unattended stock of ammonium nitrate – equivalent to around 1.1 kilotonnes of TNT – the blast on 4 August devastated Beirut, killing over 200 people and leaving around 300,000 people homeless. Almost four months on, the aftershocks are still being felt in the city.
“It’s surreal,” says Lara, a resident of the city whose family were originally from Palestine. “For those of us who weren’t alive during the civil war, we have a much clearer understanding of what it must have been like.”
Already among the poorest in society, Syrian and Palestinian communities have been hit hard by the multiple crises afflicting Lebanon. In the aftermath of the explosion, a report published by the Access Centre for Human Rights in Beirut found that Syrian refugees had been discriminated against in the distribution of aid.
The report, which surveyed 47 Syrian families – all affected by the explosion and selected at random – found that 29 of them had been discriminated against on the basis of their nationality. In addition, “25 participants were refused food assistance…nine participants were refused cash assistance and eight participants were denied medical aid.”
A spokesman for the Access Centre told MEMO that the explosion has “expanded the sorrows of refugees.”
“Very few refugees are officially employed, and the majority are turning to daily labour, but the deterioration of the Lebanese economy, and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, have led to the loss of a large segment of the jobs that were essentially available to them.”
Moreover, refugees are increasingly scapegoated as the cause of Lebanon’s ills. Politicians like Gebran Bassil, who leads the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian, nationalistic party, have regularly blamed social problems on refugees, and called for them to be deported – despite the fact that there is nowhere for them to go.
Tensions can be exaggerated between refugees and host communities. “Lebanon has had a refugee population since what, 1948?” said Lara. “We’re part of the economy, we’re part of the Lebanese fabric. The Lebanese are used to us.” But cracks are beginning to show. “Because of the Syrians you don’t have jobs,” says Yasmin. “Because of the Syrians you don’t have electricity – this is what the politicians say.”
These simmering tensions can spill over into violence. Last week, local and social media reported the death of a Lebanese man allegedly at the hands of a Syrian refugee in the town of Bcharre in the north of the country. The homes of Syrian refugees were then reportedly set on fire, and the town’s Syrian population were expulsed, then the military was deployed.
Refugees are always exploited politically to justify the failure of the Lebanese authorities to have a proper policy-making and implementation plan for the sake of the Lebanese community
said the Access Centre in response to the incident in Bcharre.
Resentment of the refugee community is concerning for Yasmin, who hasn’t been back to Syria in nine years. “Beirut has become our home,” she said. “Ten years down the line we have built memories, we have built families here.”
“We are as heartbroken about Beirut and the destruction of Beirut as we were [about] our cities back in Syria.”
But with little political progress being made, it appears that the most vulnerable members of Lebanese society will continue to have to rely on themselves, and on aid organisations, to survive. Incoming Prime Minister Saad Hariri is struggling to form a government, and international partners, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, have said that Lebanon will not receive substantial bailouts until corruption is addressed through reforms.
Like many in Lebanon, Lara doesn’t expect any help from the government. “The government collapsed a long time ago. The government is just not interested… they’re not interested enough to do anything; they won’t do anything.”
Yasmin says that help for Lebanon needs to go further than “relief and aeroplanes of food”.
“Invest in livelihood programs, invest in agricultural programs, education programs… we’re going to be dealing with the detrimental effects of all this for years.”
“Lebanon and the explosion is not sexy anymore; it’s not on the headlines any more. But I would like people to keep talking about Lebanon – the needs are increasing day in and day out.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.