BAB AL-TABBANEH, Lebanon — In just one year, the number of people uprooted from their homes due to war and forced displacement has increased worldwide from 50 million to 60 million — an average of 42,500 individuals per day, enough to form the world's 24th largest country. The United Nations issued news of this staggering increase June 19, a day before World Refugee Day. These numbers exceed those of the post-World War II era and mark the largest humanitarian crisis since the Holocaust.
The large increase is primarily driven by the war in Syria, a country that until a few years ago had been the world’s second-largest refugee host country. Today, the heavy burden of the refugee crisis is not exclusive to the Syrian people, but is deeply felt among the communities hosting their vulnerable neighbors. These host communities have themselves sometimes endured years of sectarian violence, war and poverty, such as those in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey.
Tripoli is the second-largest city in Lebanon and is predominantly Sunni. The majority of its people live in severe poverty and face ongoing sectarian violence between its Sunni and Shiite populations, which are primarily divided between Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, respectively.
Chadi Nachabe, co-founder and president of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Utopia, told Al-Monitor, “Today in Lebanon, we have more issues as a result of the Syrian war. On the one hand, we have the Syrian refugees who are living among the desperate communities in Lebanon, like those in Tripoli, and on the other hand, we have extra fuel added to the violence that’s now reignited between the Lebanese Sunnis and the Syrian Alawites, on top of the already existing sectarian conflict between the Lebanese Sunnis and Lebanese Shiites. It’s a mess.” Nachabe's Tripoli-based nonprofit relies on volunteers and is dedicated to abolishing a variety of social maladies through youth empowerment, advocacy and socio-cultural initiatives to help Syrian refugees as well as their Lebanese hosts.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of the 1.3 million registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon close to 300,000 of them live in Tripoli. Nachabe said hundreds of them currently live among the 1,500 households in Bab al-Tabbaneh's poor communities.
Driving along the dusty roads of Bab al-Tabbaneh among damaged buildings, Nachabe reiterated, “The Lebanese are already facing challenges because of internal political problems, sectarian conflicts, economic challenges and poverty, and the refugees are being dumped on top of an already broken system.” He pointed out the location of houses and shops destroyed in the series of attacks involving Islamic militants, militia groups and the Lebanese army in October 2014.
Singling out one strip of buildings, Nachabe said, “All these shops and buildings were destroyed, but we helped rebuild them.” For decades, Bab al-Tabbaneh has been in constant conflict with the neighboring, predominantly Shiite town of Jabal Mohsen, which since 2011 has been supportive of Syrian Alawites backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
“North Lebanon and Tripoli are so poor, and are not strongly supported by the government, so unemployment and lack of education are skyrocketing. All this creates a natural environment for extremism to grow and spread,” said Nachabe.
The developmental activist comes from a middle-class family that owns a small printing business in Tripoli. Having grown up amid political turmoil, Nachabe said he felt obligated to help youths, especially those he saw firsthand joining extremist forces or giving up hope and their futures to internal conflict and poverty.
“The concept of advocacy was and is still a new concept in our society in Tripoli and other cities in Lebanon,” Nachabe said, while recalling the initial steps that led him and his young Tripolitanian volunteers and friends to set up Utopia in 2011 with support from the United States Agency for International Development and international NGOs.
Nachabe explained that they prioritize “the Syrian refugees living among the Lebanese in Tripoli and peace building in the host community.” Utopia's programs include a peace-building initiative among youths from Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen, joint religious meetings and workshops and advocacy groups on health care, child care and education. In 2014, Utopia helped organize a job fair for Syrian and Lebanese youths. Nachabe said they found opportunities for 100 of them in a shopping center in Qatar as well as local opportunities.
After parking his car, Nachabe walked into a vegetable market, where he greeted Haytham Hollak with a hug.
“We are not terrorists. We are not these people,” Hollak told Al-Monitor, gesturing toward a still-fresh-looking black logo of the Islamic State painted on a wall across from his shop. “There have never been enough resources here. The politicians never cared. I founded this market in 2011 to create jobs for these young kids, but in October of 2014, the vegetable garden was destroyed.” Nachabe and the team at Utopia helped Hollak rebuild his market after the clashes between Islamic militants and the Lebanese army.
“The whole place was destroyed, but he wanted to rebuild it, to create jobs but mostly to re-create engagement and hope,” said Nachabe. A few dozen unemployed youths currently work in the market. “Whether it’s delivering fruits and vegetables from the farms, helping sell and managing the shops and selling booths, these are youths who would have otherwise been on the street, without jobs,” said Hollak.
Meanwhile, a Lebanese man sat with his children in a darkened room lacking electricity. Habib had lost his job at a butcher shop because of back problems. “I can’t work because of my back disc, and I don’t have the money to take care of it. But you know, my boss had no problem finding a replacement, especially with the Syrian refugees here, who will immediately take my job, since they are much cheaper to hire,” said Habib.
Five years into the Syrian conflict, the UNHCR is implementing the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan (3RP). In addition to providing aid for Syrian refugees, it “will help address the longer-term socio-economic impact of the Syria crisis on neighboring countries.”
In March, UNHCR head Antonio Guterres, spoke on the worsening conditions for Syrian refugees and noted, “Further abandoning host countries to manage the situation on their own could result in serious regional destabilization, increasing the likelihood of more security concerns elsewhere in the world.”
Requiring $5.5 billion in funding to directly support almost 6 million people, 3RP is based on planning projections of up to 4.27 million Syrians seeking refuge in neighboring countries by the end of 2015 and helping more than a million vulnerable people in host communities. For many hosts, the current challenges are painfully rooted in their own souls and have been reopened by the large influx of refugees.
“My brother was killed years ago in a violent attack during the time Syrians were occupying Lebanon. Today, after all this time, young Lebanese people don’t have much to look forward to here, and I don’t think the situation will get better,” said Hollak. He smiled, peeled a fresh tangerine and pointed to a sign that Utopia helped youths paint. It read, “God saved this place.”
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