Aleppo or Halab, seems to have descended on Beirut, Lebanon. In the Hamra district of the city, children occupy the sidewalks — girls selling cut flowers and boys asking to polish shoes — as women sit with babies in the shade, begging for change. Desperation stalks the more-than-700,000 registered refugees, with untold numbers of unregistered men, women and children gathered in already-straitened camps and slums along the spine of Lebanon’s coastline and in its Bekaa Valley. They have fled gruesome fighting, and can tell uncomfortable stories.
Mustafa (28) makes his living delivering goods to people’s homes. Like so many others in the area, Mustafa came to Beirut from Aleppo, a city that has been at the centre of several major battles — including one in early 2012 that sent him across the border. He came with his family, but left them in Mount Lebanon for the city. “I’ll never have children,” he says. “This world is too cruel.”
When asked about the impending attack by the U.S. on Syria, Mustafa smiled and suggested with his hands that he’d like to see the Assad regime garrotted. But then, on reflection, he said he hoped the conflict would end without any more bloodshed.
Syrian refugees have fled from areas marked by ceaseless conflict between the Assad regime and the rebels, as well as amongst the rebels themselves. In mid August, the largest group of emigrants fled northern Syria where the Kurdish popular resistance groups (YPG) have been trying to preserve their autonomy against the incursions of the Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of the Iraq and Levant. Forty thousand people, mainly Kurds, crossed a pontoon bridge into Iraqi Kurdistan over three days. They carry with them strong views about their assailants, but are distracted by the immediate worries of their displacement.
In Lebanon, the registered refugees receive $27 per day from the U.N., which has announced that even this small sum will cease as pledges of aid have not come in. To supplement this money, refugees have had to be creative, looking for any kind of work that will bring in cash. Lebanon’s economy is in deep distress with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 135 per cent, among the highest in the world.
There is very little room for growth here, the reason why a backlash has emerged against the refugee population. It is also why Taleb (36) tells me that he wishes to return home as soon as possible. Life in Lebanon is only temporary.
Syrian refugees are not necessarily politically or militarily involved in the rebellion. Certainly in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, the refugee camps are havens for the anti-Assad rebellion. Jihadi groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra draw from sections of the city’s population, and from its inspirational Salafi preacher Sheikh Salem al-Rafei (whose mosque was the target of a bomb blast on August 23). The city’s Beddawi camp has seen several anti-Assad demonstrations.
It is fitting that Syria Street is the borderline between rival neighbourhoods with diametrically-opposed views on the next-door state. Here, political views define the reaction to news that the U.S. might bomb Syria — those who detest the Assad regime are for the bombing, while those who oppose the rise of the Salafi groups or fear for the post-Assad future decry the potential bombing.
Things are more complicated when everyday existence subsumes the politics. Ni’mat and Jalal, a couple who had a carpet store in Syria, say they know what the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq did to that country. They saw Iraqi refugees flee into Syria and sectarian violence tear that country apart. Jalal says they are also old enough to have been spectators of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1989), when sectarian fissures opened up into grievous violence. Both sides of Syria have been wracked by invasions and civil wars, and these examples do not allay the couple’s fears. A U.S. bombing run or an invasion would simply increase the bloodshed and tear Syria apart, they say. “Syria is already broken, but this would be its end,” says Ni’mat.
Ni’mat says the best carpets in the world are made in Iran and Turkey as well as in India. An inferior carpet is made in Tunis, she says. The Arabs do not make good carpets, Ni’mat points out. “They are too busy with the boom-boom,” the warfare that has derailed the hopes of the people of West Asia over two generations.