Northern Lebanon struggles to contain backlash against Syrians

The murder of a young Lebanese woman by her family's Syrian employee has set off reactions of violence and intimidation that have kept Syrian children out of school.

al-monitor Syrian children are seen inside an informal settlement for Syrian refugees in Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, north Lebanon, Jan. 6, 2016. Photo by REUTERS/ Jamal Saidi.

Topics covered

employment, lebanese society, children, maronites, lebanese politics, syrian refugees in lebanon, hezbollah in lebanon

Dec 12, 2017

The door first slams in the inspectors’ faces, but only briefly. Nidal Ibrahim smiles when he opens the door again to let inspectors from the Zgharta district into his small flat, where his family of nine has lived since fleeing the Syrian town of Idlib four years ago.

We are in northern Lebanon on a Monday night. Like every night, a team of 18 inspectors is dispatched around town to check that Syrians are not out in the streets after the curfew, to see who lives in which building, to photograph any new resident and record his name and city of origin in Syria, and to warn anyone whose residency permit has expired that they need to fix it as soon as possible.

Cases like that of Ibrahim’s 19-year-old son are common. “Because there’s not enough work, I didn’t renew my work permit,” Nayef Ibrahim told Al-Monitor. He doesn’t leave the house anymore, as he could be arrested and imprisoned. Syrians also often report that their Lebanese employers try to extort money from them in exchange for a work permit, which costs the employer $200 a year, paid directly to the Lebanese state.

Such inspections have become more frequent in northern Lebanon since the rape and murder late September of Raya Chidiac, a 26-year-old wealthy Christian woman who lived in the town of Miziara. The man who strangled her with a plastic bag was Syrian and had worked for her family for years as their building’s caretaker. He was arrested and confessed to the murder.

The backlash that followed affected not only Miziara, but the entire region. Although the mayor of Miziara declined an interview, there have been reports that all Syrians were given a deadline to leave and sometimes physically intimidated.

In Bcharre, a village in northern Lebanon, Syrian residents were issued a warning to leave before Nov. 15. A few hundred men with a Lebanese employer and official sponsor were allowed to stay. “Yes, we suffered from the consequences of the Miziara crime. But as long as we have a permit, our situation is fine,” Suleiman from Idlib told Al-Monitor on the street. But thousands — mostly families — left.

Demonstrations in Bcharre started on Oct. 18, the day school resumed after the summer holiday, preventing Syrian children from attending their classes. They were held daily for two weeks in front of the village’s only public school that hosts Syrian refugees, according to school director Roula Keirouz. “Going for the children was the best way to push the families to leave,” Keirouz told Al-Monitor. Thousands of families left for towns closer to the coast such as Tripoli, reported several residents, both Syrian and Lebanese.

The Zgharta administration tried to calm the situation, asking demonstrators in the region to show their support for Chidiac’s family by not attacking the local Syrian population. “We posted our guards around Miziara so that Syrians could leave the town without being assaulted. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees intervened as well,” Ghassan Tayoun, the vice president of the Zgharta district, told Al-Monitor.

Chidiac’s murder was the tipping point for Lebanese resentment against the perceived burden of Syrian refugees. Even though the region traditionally welcomes the couple hundred Syrians who work in construction and agriculture every year, their numbers have swelled to several thousand since the war broke out in Syria in 2011. Seasonal workers brought their families, and others soon joined them. “We feel like there are more Syrians than Lebanese,” is a common complaint among the locals.

Towns like Miziara and Bcharre are overwhelmingly Maronite Christians, and Syrian refugees are mainly Sunni Muslims. Many inhabitants point to “cultural differences.” “People complained that they did not like to see Syrians walking in groups out in the street, or washing their bodies outside, in full view of everyone,” Joe Khalifeh, who worked for the town of Bcharre until 2016, told Al-Monitor. “After what happened in Miziara, mothers were scared for their daughters and would not let them walk home alone at night,” said Keirouz.

Approximately 1 million Syrian refugees are registered in Lebanon. In 2015, the government tightened its residency policy, ending the official registrations but not the inflow. Most Lebanese officials believe that there are as many as 2 million Syrians in Lebanon, where the local population is approximately 4 million.

All around Lebanon, people complain that the sudden increase in cheap labor is a threat to their economic well-being. In Lebanon, unemployment affects roughly 20% of the population and public infrastructure is weak — electricity outages are still a daily nuisance all over the country since the end of the civil war in 1990. According to Simon Douaihy, one of the men hired by Zgharta to inspect the local Syrian population, “A Syrian house painter costs $20-$30 a day, while a Lebanese worker normally asks for $100.”

By increasing surveillance instead of pushing the Syrians to leave, Zgharta hopes to be able to control simmering tensions as well as prepare for the refugees’ eventual return to Syria. “For example, when the situation is calm in Homs, we will write to the Lebanese government asking that their return be organized,” said Tayoun.

The return of Syrian refugees was a hot topic this summer among Lebanese politicians after a few thousand of them left Lebanon for Syria under a deal brokered by the Shiite group Hezbollah. Prime Minister Saad Hariri said that the refugees’ return can only be done in coordination with the United Nations. But President Michel Aoun, who is allied with Hezbollah, tweeted in October that the return of the “displaced” — a term used by Lebanese politicians for Syrians in the country so as not to grant them refugee status — “must be carried out without attaching it to reaching a political solution” in Syria.

A non-UN-brokered return of refugees would have to be done in coordination with the Syrian government, which would mean Lebanon normalizing relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a military ally of Hezbollah. When he resigned on Nov. 4 while in Saudi Arabia, Hariri condemned pressure from Hezbollah and its allies. He only formally rescinded his resignation on Dec. 5 after his Cabinet agreed to commit to a policy of “dissociation” from regional conflicts.

Back in northern Lebanon, most people Al-Monitor spoke with think that conditions are ready today for the Syrians to return to their home country. “I’ve seen on television that 80% of the country is pacified. Why don’t they go back?” asked Keirouz from her living room in Bcharre, facing the school where demonstrations took place against Syrian children.

“People say that, but we know it’s not true yet,” explained Tayoun. “Houses are still destroyed, and people’s lives can be threatened by different armed factions. We try to treat Syrians peacefully. But we’ll be very happy to accompany them home when the moment comes.”

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