In Lebanon, Syrian Refugees Put Political Differences Aside

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Article Summary
Syrian refugees in Lebanon try to avoid the divisions that are fueling the war at home.

BEIRUT — Sitting in the garage they rent in Lebanon's Bekaa, Ahmed, Mohammed and Miriam discuss politics yet again. They may be brothers and sisters, but their opinions toward the Syrian civil war could not be more opposed. Ahmed, the eldest at 38, supports the Free Syrian Army (FSA), while Miriam, 36, favors the government. Mohammed, the youngest, wishes for an Islamic state to be established in Syria. What is in this improvised house a calm debate and the subject of jokes has been fueling a bloody civil war for 2½ years.

"We cannot really have an argument; our sister is too stubborn and will always have the upper hand, she runs everything in this house!" joke the two brothers.

What they call their house is actually a garage — with several rooms separated by chipboard — which they rent for $300 a month and share with their spouses and children. In total, 16 people live here, in fearful anticipation of the upcoming winter's cold. The entire family hails from Homs, Syria, where they all lived in different neighborhoods. The violence forced them to flee to Lebanon, where they share the same roof for financial reasons.

This agreement to treat politics as a light matter is perhaps due to the fact that none of them are strong political activists. Ahmed supported the regime until his 20-year-old son was killed by government forces in a protest in Homs a year and a half ago. For Mohammed, it isn't about supporting one group or the other, but rather his desire for an Islamic state. He said he is wary of the violent actions of Islamic groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Used to winning the arguments in the house, Miriam is perhaps the more opinionated of the family, blaming the bloodshed in Homs on the actions of rebels.

"The so-called free army is terrible," she said. "We were happy in Homs before the revolution. My family had food, water, electricity, free education and free healthcare. Now we have nothing, what was the point?"

She also condemns the FSA's actions throughout the war, saying that they "do not look after the people," pointing at allegations of looting.

Despite their differences, they remain united against the difficult life they live in Lebanon, but say that it is not always that easy for other families.

"Of course some families are like us, with different opinions, and get along. But I know some families in Zahle that don't live together because of this, and it is harder for them to pay for food and rent," said Ahmed.

If it is understandable that families would manage to get along, one could fear that it would not be that easy for refugees without any prior relationships to coexist peacefully in Lebanon. The Syrian conflict has affected Lebanon on many occasions, with attacks against Hezbollah occurring in recent months alongside sectarian fighting in Tripoli. Refugees in precarious conditions, however, seem to have put their political differences aside in the face of dire odds.

Not far from the siblings' house in the Bekaa lies one of the many improvised refugee camps in the region. The camp outside Ghazze houses roughly 500 families living in tents made from scavenged material. Ibrahim, an elderly man from the Qusair region of Syria and a former sheep herder, said that there have been no incidents linked to political affiliations in the camp.

"There are many different opinions in the camp, but it is not what matters today. People care about finding food, paying rent — they have no interest in being at each other's throat over who supports who," Ibrahim said.

One of his neighbors, Khaled, a construction worker from Homs, concurred: "The war has been going on for two and a half years. Those who could flee to Lebanon fled because they were sick of it. They have no interest in starting it all over again here. They want to be at peace," he explained.

Most refugees agree that tensions about Syrians, though they exist, are minor compared with those between Lebanese and Syrians.

"We are being exploited economically because they know we have no other choice but to comply," complained Ahmed.

Organizations dealing with Syrian refugees in Lebanon such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) offer similar insight.

Dana Sleiman, the information officer for UNHCR, said that the organization has not observed "any form of political segregation" among Syrian refugees, but that "tensions appear mostly between Lebanese and Syrians, primarily on financial issues."

NRC Country Director Niamh Murnaghan said, "NRC’s programs assist refugees in host communities. The refugees themselves choose where they stay in Lebanon based on where they feel comfortable and safe rather than on the basis of political affiliations."

Mohammed Kashkash, 24, a student from Aleppo, Syria who arrived in Lebanon six months ago, experienced discrimination at his job as a supermarket employee for not supporting the Damascus regime. The manager, a Syrian Alawite, would bully him on a daily basis and give preferential treatment to another Syrian employee who displayed pro-regime views. 

"I was treated very badly, but this manager was not a refugee, he moved to Lebanon years ago. I had very good relationships with other Syrian refugees working in the store; in fact my best friend there was an Alawite," the young man said.

With the winter arriving in Lebanon, living conditions of refugees will worsen considerably — whether in camps or in destitute housing. Though it is certainly positive that Syrian refugees show some solidarity despite their political differences.

"I have to take care of my family. I have to find a way to keep them warm through the winter. I simply don't have the time to fight with people about the regime or the rebels. I don't have the strength, either," said Khaled. 

Jean Carrere is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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Found in: unhcr, tripoli, syrian refugees, qusair, international aid, homs

Jean Carrere is a freelance journalist based in Beirut.

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