Welcome sours for Syrian refugees

A girl in the Tripoli refugee camp that now houses thousands of Syrian refugees. (Photo by Justin Salhani)

With their houses in ruins and former villages now ghost towns, more than 1.5 million Syrians have fled their homeland. Lebanon and other neighboring countries have opened their doors to these refugees, but violence and strife have followed them from Syria.

The poorest neighborhood in Tripoli, Lebanon’s northern city, is a slum across from the seaside called Hay al-Tanak, which translates to “Tin Neighborhood”. The slum derives its name from the corrugated iron that rests atop the residents’ homes.

The entrance to the slum is hidden on both sides by tall, unkempt grass and wild daffodils. The houses are built side by side, with walls made up of left over building materials like gray cinderblocks, flat boards of wood, or, if nothing else is accessible, bamboo sticks.

The entrance to Hay al-Tanak, a slum turned refugee camp in Tripoli, Lebanon. (Photo by Justin Salhani)
The entrance to Hay al-Tanak, a slum turned refugee camp in Tripoli, Lebanon. (Photo by Justin Salhani)

The slum is run by a subordinate of a Lebanese minister called “el Zaim” or the “the Chief”.

According to el Zaim, Hay al-Tanak’s population was once split between native Lebanese and Syrians who were born and raised in Lebanon.

But since the war started, the Syrian population has grown rapidly — some residents estimate by as much as 500 percent.

While the residents here used to get along seamlessly, recent disputes have destabilized the situation. One Syrian in Hay al-Tanak, who has lived his entire life in Lebanon, lifted his shirt to show two stab wounds inflicted just a few days earlier outside the camp. He said a group of young Lebanese attacked him without reason while he was at work vending coffee.

Ali (who withheld his last name to avoid angering his neighbors) is a 20-year-old resident of Hay al-Tanak, who repairs motorbikes for a living.

“The fighting is mostly about work. The Syrians didn’t leave any work for us,” he said.

Lebanese citizens complain that Syrians can afford to work for less because their basic needs are met by the aid they receive from NGOs.

This has led to what Ali calls “daily fighting and cursing” between Lebanese and Syrians.

But the frustration of locals doesn’t change the dour conditions faced by refugees fleeing the fighting. And regardless of which side they support in the Syrian Civil War, their stories tend to sound similar.

Syrian refugees collect recyclables in Hay al-Tanak. Poor Lebanese residents in the slum are beginning to resent the presence of Syrian refugees. (Photo by Justin Salhani)
Syrian refugees collect recyclables in Hay al-Tanak. Poor Lebanese residents in the slum are beginning to resent the presence of Syrian refugees. (Photo by Justin Salhani)

Many supporters of the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that have taken refuge in Baalbek, a city nestled in east Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, said they fled Syria because the regime’s shelling destroyed their homes.

In Saadnayel, another Lebanese town in the Bekaa Valley, refugees backing the Syrian opposition scrape by on sparse donations from their Lebanese neighbors.

The dire situation here in Lebanon is echoed in Turkey and Jordan as well.

Jordan will soon play host to around half a million Syrian refugees according to UNHCR, of which more than 100,000 live in the dismal poverty of Zaatari, the largest refugee camp in Jordan. The camp has been divided between different Syrian political factions, raising concerns by the Jordanian government that the civil war will begin to replicate itself there.

Jordan’s total population is less than seven million so the massive refugee influx has put a strain on a country already dealing with constant internal political problems.

Turkey, to Syria’s north, has become refuge for over 350,000 Syrian refugees. And though it’s a much larger country with a larger population than Jordan, the Turks have already suffered violent spillover from the Syrian war. Earlier this month two car bombs in the southern Turkish town of Reyhanli took the lives of 46 people, mostly Turks. The blasts were apparently linked to Syrian factions.

But it is Lebanon, a country the size of Rhode Island and straddled between Israel to the south and Syria to the north and east, which has faced the biggest burden when it comes to refugees.

Over 488,000 refugees from Syria have fled to Lebanon where the typical population is 4.1 million. Lebanon is in a serious predicament — power cuts are already rife and many citizens lack basic amenities, even without the added pressure of a refugee population.

Residents in Hay al-Tanak, the slum turned refugee camp in Tripoli, Lebanon's northern city. (Photo by Justin Salhani)
Residents in Hay al-Tanak, the slum turned refugee camp in Tripoli, Lebanon’s northern city. (Photo by Justin Salhani)

Still, Lebanon’s government and the aid groups working here cannot deny Syrians aid or refuge due to the humanitarian nature of their situation.

Syrians are now monopolizing aid that was once going to impoverished Lebanese, leading to increased friction between Syrians and Lebanese in Lebanon.

“Lebanese tell the Syrians they are sorry to bother them in Lebanon,” said Omar Sayyed, a reporter based in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city, repeating a common joke now heard on Lebanon’s streets.

Unlike in Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon has no official refugee camps for Syrians. Instead, the refugees either share homes with the Lebanese or rent makeshift homes that aren’t finished being built. Others have moved into slums like Hay al-Tanak.

The war in Syria is likely to continue as Assad’s forces have been reportedly making unexpected gains on the ground. In the meantime, the compartive peace of Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan will continue to attract hordes of refugees from across the border.

And many of these refugees will have to settle in areas similar to Hay al-Tanak, where in addition to braving extreme poverty, they will have to brave the unraveling situation with their hosts.

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