Jan 30, 2013

Social Divides Among Syrians in Beirut

Abu Leila – January 29, 2013


Abu Leila is a Syrian journalist from Aleppo who contributes reporting and analysis to Syria Deeply. He has written under that pen name since the start of the conflict. Today he looks at escalating social tension between newly-arrived Syrians in Beirut.

I talked to Zeina, an expat friend who has lived in different countries in the Middle East and has worked with people from Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Palestine. She told me her observations about the conditions of the Syrians who’ve recently fled to Beirut.


“On a typical day on Beirut’s busy Hamra Street, you’ll hear different accents from all over the Levant — especially from Syria. Some cafes have become favorite haunts for Syrians, fondly nicknamed after famous pit stops back home in Damascus.

A cab driver might be from a village in Idleb. The guy serving coffee might speak in the Jazeera accent of northeastern Syria, while bold Aleppines talk at the next table.

A social divide is visible between Syrians (and between Syrians and their Lebanese hosts.) Many Damascenes flit around Beirut in SUVs or luxurious cars, shopping in designer stores and lunching in pricey downtown eateries.

I have a wealthy Aleppine friend who’s migrated to Beirut. He seems conflicted by this situation.

‘In Aleppo my family used to support local charities,’ he says. ‘Now I see Syrians all around me in desperate need of help and I can’t do anything because we are also only living on our savings and the whole extended family is dependent on us. I feel like a victim in ways I never thought possible. It’s frustrating.’

A mere stone’s throw from the bustling nightlife of the Gemmayzeh district, you’ll find Syrians from war-torn villages being exploited as cheap labor, working at jobs which are considered “socially degrading” for the average Lebanese: among them porters, taxi drivers and construction workers.

Under the bridges of Beirut it’s common to see groups of Syrian men waiting for daily work on construction sites or other forms of manual labor. Without much in the way of legal protection, these men — some as young as 15 years old — often will do a full day’s labor and not get paid.

In the past, Syrian day laborers were almost certain to find jobs. Now they loiter beneath the bridges all day. There are simply too many people desperate for work, and not enough jobs.

In Lebanon, job offers and salaries depend on your nationality. Syrians and newcomers from other conflicted countries in the region are not in a favorable position. It is incredibly difficult for Syrians to find a job in Lebanon. And even if they are employed, their salaries are barely sufficient to pay rent and other living expenses.

My friend Tariq is looking for a job.

Tariq was born and raised in Syria. He was born to an Iraqi father and so he holds only an Iraqi passport (under Syrian law, Syrian women who are married to non-Syrians cannot give Syrian citizenship to their children.)

Immigration laws regarding Iraqis in Lebanon are incredibly stringent, further complicating Tariq’s position as he worries, non-stop, about deportation.

Tariq brought his car with him from Syria to Lebanon, but finds that here it gives him unwanted attention. Other Syrians see it and stereotype him as a ‘rich Damascene,’ but Tariq is living off his savings, which will run out soon. He says the best offer he had is $500 a month for a full-time job for which he is over-qualified.

It’s said that in Lebanese society there is no black and white. These days, with so many Syrians around, it’s even more complicated. Social divides among Syrians are cutting even deeper along already existing sectarian lines.

These issues always existed, but for decades, everything in Syria was pushed under the rug. Nobody dared to talk about it. It’s one of the factors that triggered the uprising.

On a popular Lebanese TV talk show last week, its hosts concluded that Lebanon cannot afford to open its doors to such a high number of Syrian refugees due to “demographic risks.” (The speakers were likely drawing parallels to the role Palestinian refugees played in igniting Lebanese civil strife in 1975.)

Whether these fears and prejudices will be resolved properly or will be accepted as the tense “new normal” in Beirut remains an unanswered question.

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