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  • Writer's pictureEugenie Laurette Nicole

Cedarland: the search for a better existence

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

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Uit MO* Magazine van 27/04/2019

During three weeks I submerged myself in the Lebanese habitat. Accompanied by two Parisian women, who I met on the way to Beirut, I started my explorations. An observation about Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The war in Syria might have ended but that does not mean that all current problems will disappear or go up in smoke.

© Photo by Eugenie D'Hooghe

The Libanese atmosphere

The cosmopolitan capital Beirut is known as the Paris of the Middle-East. From luxurious bars and romantic walks on the beach to visiting historic runes. Here, the sun shines 300 days a year. The jumble of languages, religious fragmentation and ethnic diversity makes Lebanon, with Beirut as its metropolis, a special country in the Arabic world.

Cedar wood, cut from the cedar trees, is the most important export product in Beirut. It adorns the Lebanese flag and is thus seen as the national symbol of the country. This quite justly as the Chouf Cedar Reserve, spanning over 550 square kilometres, is the biggest nature reserve in the Middle East. Lebanon has become a true tourist attraction, much loved by Arabs and people like me: those with a passion for world politics and a preference for the Middle East.

‘Sometimes I thought to myself: is this the unsafe Lebanon people talk about?’

Sometimes I thought to myself: ‘is this the unsafe Lebanon people talk about?’ because before I got on the road to Lebanon, I was flooded by worried questions from family members. ‘Why would you travel to Lebanon by yourself as a young woman?!’ Their anxiety was not ill-founded seeing the Federal Government agencies still recommend increased vigilance up until this day. Despite these reprimands, I could not be stopped in my tracks. My stubborn choice was not to be redirected seeing I was going with a specific purpose. I wanted to gain experience and wisdom about Lebanon on one hand, and on the other I wanted to work with Syrians who fled their homes and heimat.

Impact Syrian civil war

Lebanon is a small country. It is smaller than Belgium and has a population of about four million people. Representing a melting pot of different cultures, religions and nationalities is the standard. Up until this moment, about one million Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Lebanon. If you count the Palestinian refugees as well, the total number is estimated at 2 million refugees.

They have an immense impact on the current Lebanese society, and weigh heavy on the local community because the surrounding countries have a sensitive history. It wasn’t until 1943 that Lebanon was seen as an independent republic, even though many Syrians saw their neighbouring country as an inseparable part of their territory. The Lebanese government opened the doors to Syrian sufferers at the beginning of the crisis despite these underlying difficulties.

These facts have brought tensions between the different nations, both from the start as to this day. During my travels I met Lebanese people who talked in a patronizing and even mocking way about the Syrians. As a result of this, many Syrian refugees often land jobs in cleaning or on building sites. The cause of this should not only be found in scarcity of provisions, but just as much in the lack of willingness of some Lebanese bosses to give Syrians a chance in the work field.

The existential refugee crisis placed an increasingly higher pressure on the Lebanese job, the job market, the touristic sector, healthcare, education and overall infrastructure.’

Before 2015, Syrian refugees could register in Lebanon under the statute of asylum seeker. The Lebanese government was extremely alert and active, but as the flood of refugees continued without decreasing, they sounded the alarm bell. The existential refugee crisis placed an increasingly higher pressure on the Lebanese job market, touristic sector, healthcare, education and overall infrastructure.

Since the crisis there is a considerably and consistently lower number of tourists because of the negative image of the Middle-East in general. Next to these matters is Lebanon still struggling with internal problems such as big manifestations against croaking institutions, rampant corruption, the escalating garbage crisis and the government trying to uphold the fragile social peace between the diverse ethnic groups that was consolidated in 1990. A combination of all these factors put Lebanon on thin ice.

Lebanon and the garbage crisis anno 2018 in Beirut © Photo by Eugenie D'Hooghe

Between a rock and a hard place

After 2015, government services decided that refugees were no longer welcome in Lebanon. As a result, Syrians could no longer appeal for legitimate papers. Refugee camps were destroyed or people without papers were questioned for days on end. In the worst case scenarios they were extradited out of the country. This brought on quite some problems, especially for Syrians who were stuck in Lebanon without any form of legal residence papers. Without connections they found themselves in a dead end street, seeing legal papers were the only way to get a job, a salary and the possibility to consult healthcare organisations.

‘It is most definitely a fact that Syrian refugees who identify as Christians receive legal residence papers faster than Syrian Muslims.’

During my travels I met a highly pregnant Syrian Muslim woman. She did not possess legal residence papers, and because of this she couldn’t receive healthcare without risking being sent to her home country. Fortunately she knew someone connected to the christian community, so she got easier access to medical care. It is most definitely a fact that Syrian refugees who identify as Christians receive legal residence papers faster than Syrian Muslims. It is a contradictory fact seeing Lebanon is known for it’s religious diversity, but it is nonetheless reality.

Relevant to this is that during the Theo Francken-administration here in Belgium, more humanitarian passports were issued to Christians. According to the ex-Secretary of State, this happened because Christians are closer to our own culture. It is almost ironic how irresponsibly this was dealt with since the right to a humanitarian visa is applicable to every living creature who finds themselves in a life threatening environment or situation, despite their origin, culture or religion.

According to the refugee agency of the United Nations, in Lebanon we are talking about 488 000 Syrian child refugees between the ages of 3 and 18 years old. The major consequence is that many Muslim families can not find their way to decent accommodations. There are several mothers, with children barely age five, roaming the streets in Beirut. Seeing these woman sent chills down my spine. It is a harrowing picture. During the day, children dressed in dirty rags scavenge for food scraps in garbage containers. At dusk they wander the club scene, begging for money. They sleep on carton pamphlets. According to the refugee agency of the United Nations, in Lebanon we are talking about 488 000 Syrian child refugees between the ages of 3 and 18 years old.

Syrian child refugees in Beirut © UN Refugee agency Lebanon

Life in Lebanon should not be underestimated. The gap between rich and poor is immense. Poverty is in plain view. In the land of cedar, having a job does not ensure any life guarantee. Many struggle to survive on their pay checks. Lebanon is expensive, especially in the capital Beirut. After a journey to Lebanon it feels like the empty-wallet-day after ten days of the Ghent Festival.

The search for a better existence

After 2015, the problems kept escalating and as a result, many Syrians packed their bags. People looked for any alternative or means to survive. Some found asylum in already existing refugee camps, such as Burj Al-Barajneh. This camp is located south of Lebanon and has existed over 70 years. “The situation is poignant”, explains Mariam Shaar. She is Palestinian, and was raised in the camp. Because of the increasing number of refugees, she joined forces with other women. Together they started a catering business. In the documentary Soufra, it is shown what life looks like despite the terrible conditions. With their blood, sweat and tears, they are fighting for a better future.

Manal Hasan and Mana Hajjaj © Soufra

Not all Syrian refugees stayed in Lebanon. The consequences of the political decision in 2015 had an enormous impact on the stream of refugees to Europe. Many tried to take the boat from Lebanon to Europe. Crossing the Mediterranean sea was not without danger. Many did not reach the other side. A shock wave was sent through the European Union.

The crossing is seen as the world’s deadliest by the refugee agency of the United Nations. In a new report that was published in 2019, it is stated that about 2275 people drowned or went missing in the Mediterranean sea in 2018. The consequences of the crisis are still present and intensely felt. Every day political refugees, from all kind of conflict states, still attempt the crossing in search for a better existence.

Mother and child crossing the Mediterranean Sea in 2015 © UN Refugee Agency

The Syrian war may have come to an end, but that does not mean that the existing problems will go up in smoke. Meanwhile, we are anno 2019 with six million Syrian refugees in total. About one million found their way to Europe, but the largest numbers are spreading in the Middle East. The difficulties still prevail in Europe, the United States and in the Middle East. A scenario such as Iraq, Yemen or Afghanistan, which has been labeled as the most unlivable country in the world, must be avoided.

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