Syrian Neighborhoods Grow In Bekaa Valley

Syrians fleeing violence have settled in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, whose refugee population is likely be much higher than the 33,000 counted by UNHCR. They are having a huge impact — rent, commerce, and even traffic are being affected, Samer al-Huseini reports.

al-monitor UNHCR Special Envoy Angelina Jolie meets Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon in September in this UNHCR photo. Photo by REUTERS/UNHCR/Jason Tanner.

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Nov 15, 2012

When wandering through the town of Bar Elias, a local might think that he is walking in one of Damascus’ old neighborhoods. There has been an increase in the number of displaced Syrians, and locals run into them in town on a daily basis. The scenes of women with their religious black dress have become very familiar and common in towns in the central Bekaa valley.

In addition to images of Syrian women in their distinctive Islamic face veil — confirming their Damascene identity — there is another sign [indicating the presence of Syrians in the region]. There are dozens of cars — both private cars and taxis — with Syrian license plates on the roadways in Bar Elias, Saadnayel and Majdal Anjar. These cars have become a familiar sight on small roads and highways, and even on the roadside and parked in front of some houses.

With the high number of displaced Syrian families and a constant flow of Syrians to the Bekaa region through the only crossing between Lebanon and Syria, the Syrian presence in the Bekaa Valley has increased and is no longer exclusive to [Lebanese] Sunni-majority towns, as was the case in the first few months of the Syrian events. After more than 18 months of events in Syria and the continued displacement of thousands of Syrians through the al-Masnaa border crossing, Syrian families have extended to all towns and villages in the Bekaa region — starting from the Sunni-majority town of Majdal Anjar, passing through the Catholic-majority city of Zahle, to the town of Aly al-Nahri with its Shiite majority.

The increasing presence of Syrians day after day in the Bekaa Valley is no longer limited to some families inside a tent here or a deserted room there. Rather, it has become dramatically clear and noticeable in the daily life of the people of the Bekaa, as the Syrians have markedly established themselves in residential neighborhoods. This is not to mention the “rush” on rental apartments, which have become a rare commodity these days. This comes after hundreds of Syrian families rented what was left of these apartments in the Bekaa Valley, a place that has never been accustomed to such a demand for rental property.

The Syrian presence extends to include social, economic and educational aspects. The public school system has accommodated hundreds of Syrian students. This also applies to the faculties within the Lebanese University that are located in the Bekaa region, which have begun receiving registration applications. The directors of the faculties of the fourth branch [in reference to the faculties of the Lebanese University in the Bekaa Valley] confirmed that there has been a significant increase in the number of daily registration applications received from Syrian and Lebanese students in the faculties of arts, law and political science, social science and science, compared to last years and the years before.

A director in one of the faculties in the Bekaa region speculated that the number of Syrian students will reach hundreds, after it was limited to dozens in the past years. Additionally, private universities have indicated high registration numbers within its faculties due to an influx of Syrian students, especially in the faculties of information technology, pharmacy and engineering. Some universities stopped receiving registration applications days before the official date that registration was scheduled to end, since they can no longer absorb the large numbers of students who had applied.

According to the most recent report released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of displaced Syrians in Lebanon has reached 110,000, including 33,500 in the Bekaa region, in addition to 12,800 Syrian refugees that have yet to be registered by the UNHCR. However, the actual size and presence of displaced Syrian families does not match the UN’s figures. It could be argued that the actual number of displaced Syrian families is more than double the number of those that are registered. The majority of the Syrians fleeing the events in their country have not requested the help of the UN or any other relief organization, which explains their reluctance to register their names in the records of the UNHCR. These Syrians have managed their own affairs by renting apartments and shops, to resume the work and jobs that they used to do in Syria.

The flow of Syrians has increased rents for residential apartments in the central Bekaa. Owners of some residential projects discovered that there is a strong market for renting furnished apartments, and this is more profitable than selling. This is especially true given that the demand for rental apartments has been consistently rising. Additionally, Syrians who are able to rent apartments have to pay an advanced annual rent starting from $6,000, depending on the size and location of the apartment.

Antonios, a Syrian from the province of Aleppo, came with his family to Lebanon as the Syrian events reached his province. He contacted Lebanese friends in Zahle, who were able to find him an apartment for his family for $75,000 per year. The apartment is located in the Ashrafieh district [of Beirut] and is about 400 square meters. Antonios had to pay four months of rent in advance to the Lebanese owner who lives in France. However, rent for an apartment similar to that of Antonios has nowadays reached more than $100,000 per year, given the high demand from members of Syria’s upper class.

A few meters away from the Lebanese-Syrian border, at the Masnaa crossing, one can see banners carrying the names of shops that imitate their previous names in the Syrian neighborhoods whose residents have fled to Lebanon to escape the war. Any person who passes through the main highway in the Central Bekaa area can notice the presence of dozens of shops that have opened — along the route that extends from the Syrian-Lebanese border at the al-Masnaa crossing to the town of Saadnayel — by displaced Syrians who have moved their professional lives and their jobs to Lebanon, to resume their previous lives and manage their finances in their new lives in the Bekaa. However, the locals of the Bekaa, who were already complaining of how slow work is, are not pleased with the opening of new shops — including restaurants and juice shops — and some professions such as sewing and repairs, in addition to the presence of hundreds of laborers.

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