The following post was written by Bridge Year Fellow Farah Heikal. Farah spent the first half of her Bridge Year in Lebanon.
When choosing the refugee community that I wanted to work with during the first leg of my Bridge Year, several factors came to play. It was no question that the refugee issue has a large impact since the Syrian exodus shifted the demographics of every continent in the world. However, I had to narrow the large scope that the issue entailed and focus on what I, a 19-year-old college student, could do to learn more about the needs of the community. I considered three important things when choosing my placement; (1) if the organization I would be working with emphasized the integration of the refugee population into the host country, (2) if the community’s needs were being met by the international community, and (3) just how much the exodus shifted the demographics of the host country. It did not take long to realize that unlike other hosting countries, Lebanon’s refugee population quite literally made up a quarter of their country. Through my first-hand account of being in the Beqaa Valley, international assistance was rare to encounter despite Lebanon’s desperate pleas for help. Right away, the organization I chose to work with— Salam: LADC—made it clear that working on overcoming the racial tensions and barriers between Syrians and the Lebanese through community-building was their top priority.
Salam: Lebanese Association for Development and Communication is located in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which I discovered to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever encountered. With its larger-than-life vineyards and expansive mountains, it is was no surprise to learn that it was the country’s primary agricultural center. However, many inhabitants of this region did not even take notice of their beautiful surroundings. How could they, when every day of their life felt like a test to either survive or surrender?
Due to the Beqaa Valley’s proximity to the Syrian border, almost half of the 1.5 million migrants in Lebanon sought protection in this region. These dramatic influxes quickly intensified pre-existing tensions in a country that was already struggling with a weak economy and a vulnerable political situation. In fact, a number of socioeconomic trends have been made worse by the neighboring civil war. Lebanon experienced its GDP plummet while its debt has skyrocketed to become one of the highest in the world. Fewer than half of school-aged children in the country have access to education. Poverty rates continue to soar, with not enough public spending and borrowing costs to cap the chaos. Many Syrian refugees and natives alike are unable to meet their needs for survival. Their society has slowly but surely destabilized— a destabilization that led to the outburst of nationwide civil protests that I had the opportunity to witness on October 17, 2019. It was a sight of sweet rebellion that flooded the streets of the “Paris of the Middle East”—and for very good reason.
It is important to note the socioeconomic and political systems that perpetuated and maintained the issues I mentioned. The societal norms that exist between Lebanon and Syria were created over fresh wounds that had never healed after the Syrian army brutally occupied the country for three decades. Only five years after Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, their civil war began and led to the arrival of millions of refugees in their previous enemy’s country. This sudden demographic change upset the power structure and uprooted many societal norms. Because many Lebanese were already below the poverty line, the willingness of many Syrians to work unskilled jobs for much less than the minimum wage posed a threat to their survival. Through my experience living with a Lebanese family while working with Syrian refugees, I found that competition for jobs fueled the tension between the two communities. Also, media and popular culture in the country work hard to maintain the xenophobia plaguing the country. I remember watching a comedy show on Lebanese national T.V. that featured a joke about the Lebanese being the minority in their own country while making fun of the poor background and big families of Syrian refugees, reflecting real fears of changing demographics. This only fueled the Lebanese political agenda that Syrians were parasitic— using up health care, education, and even harming the environment.
There is not a day that goes by in the Beqaa Valley, or Lebanon as a whole when the issues I mentioned above are not emphasized. These tensions have brought an everlasting uneasiness to Lebanese and Syrian daily life. In addition, the fear of sectarian imbalance is a pressure that never goes unmentioned. Due to Lebanon’s confessional system in which the highest offices are reserved for leaders of the largest religious groups, many citizens are in fear of losing representation. A wide range of pressures from the economy to politics plagues the inhabitants of Lebanon every day.
Once deemed the “safe haven” for refugees at the beginning of the decade, Lebanon is no longer able to satisfy that label. The pre-existing systemic issues that pervaded the Lebanese government and society made it impossible to sustain an unexpected mass migration in such a small country. The only direction forward is integration; working on integrating the refugee communities in a way that seamlessly allows them to work alongside natives to alleviate societal stressors. Purposeful integration is the most effective way to secure domestic development for struggling communities instead of just relying on international aid. Syrians are a pool of labor and an important consumer base in the country—but at the end of it all, they are human beings deserving of safety and security. The Lebanese and refugees alike are in need of social services and infrastructure development that benefit them as a whole. I hope that international institutions will fray from their pattern of turning a blind eye to the truth—the truth being that investing in Lebanon is vital to the well-being of the most diverse country in the East and the world as a whole.