In need of a mirror

Looking back at my report from Lebanon

The following article was published in December 2017 in LeibnizCampus Magazine, a magazine run by Leibniz University in Hannover, Germany. As a white European foreigner who had never been to Lebanon, I was asked to write an article about the current migration situation in Lebanon – after having spent only one week there.

In January 2018, I asked five Lebanese men and women to comment on my article. Their names have been changed as most of them wished to remain anonymous. I wanted to know if the picture I painted of their country was accurate, especially because this is a picture shaping the minds of people abroad. Doing so, I wanted to start an honest conversation about the possibilities and limits of (Western) journalist’ attempts to narrate a story which is not their own. And one day, collective and interactive approaches like this one, could even be used to improve the quality of journalistic reporting.

Below is an English translation of parts of the published article, with the comments from the five Lebanese, added throughout the text.

Report from Lebanon: A country shaped by flight and migration

Already when arriving to the international airport of Beirut, it becomes clear that the painful aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War is noticeable until the present daySouad: How is it so obvious since the arrival at the airport?. Outside the terminal, there are soldiers with machine guns controlling passengers and vehiclesYoussef: Hezbollah doesn’t control the airport. They are present in their own areas. No more Hezbollah checkpoints at the airport..

The presence of Hezbollah is obvious, as it is in the whole country. This Shia militia, founded during the civil war, is fighting alongside Assad in Syria. Speaking of peace in Lebanon might be misleading – at least you would have to add a long footnote to it. And this footnote would become even longer if taking into account income disparities and ethnicity. In the turmoil of international politics, Lebanon’s hospitable population doesn’t come to restMaryam: The actual political situation is very different from the Lebanese war. The soldiers are part of Lebanese security forces. The presence of Hezbollah is not in the airport, not in the whole country. They’re mainly in Dahieh close to the airport and still not inside of it, and South Lebanon and Baalbek. Otherwise there are no Hezbollah agents in other regions. We cannot really relate war in Syria to peace in Lebanon. There is a sense of political consensus to avoid war..


Talking to people in Zahle, a small Lebanese city bordering Syria, the locals are particularly criticising rising food prices and rentSouad: TRUE!!But we also talked to Syrian refugees who are living outside the city borders, in poorly erected camps without support from the governmentYoussef: They can barely support their own citizens.

Those people have to rely on the aid of non-government organisations, which can only insufficiently solve their problems. They are living in tent cities, erected partially by using old advertising banners, often not prepared for the winter’s cold and only occasionally providing a wastewater systemSouad: All of Lebanon is like that.Diseases like scabies and diarrhea are spreading.

Some refugees moved from these tent cities to the urban area of Zahle. Those who can afford an apartment live in modest luxury – many more in abandoned constructions or garages. Even horse barns are rented to the Syrian refugees by local businesspeople. These are not individual cases. Even those who live in the camps have to pay a lease for the land on which their tent was erected. There are few other places where the hopelessnessHamed: I think the word “Hopelessness” is not the right one to describe the situation of Syrians, because they are full of hope and dreams that would lead them to start again and push everything behind their backs and live from the beginning. At the same time, I will not be so naive to say they are living well and there are flowers and butterflies, they have a big serious problem which is the migration, but that would fire the hope in them and not make it less. of the Syrian refugees are so bluntly visible as in the Bekaa Valley, at the gates of Zahle.

Lebanon is a country historically shaped by displacement and migration. About half a million Palestinians forced to flee from Israel between 1948 and 1967 have settled here, living in refugee camps in the second and third generations. Those camps have become urbanised now: electrical power lines have been installed, and brick-walled houses been built.

Yet, this did not lead to a feeling of “settling down” and being at homeSouad: Of course not, because Palestinians don’t take Lebanon as their home, but Palestine is.. Rather, their refugee status and associated uncertainty perpetuated over centuries. A lot of Palestinians in Lebanon are affected by statelessness, and thus are deprived of several civil rights. Professions with chances of advancement, for example medicine and law, are denied to them – those professions are organised in chambers, and admission to a chamber requires citizenship.

It is not unlikely that children and grandchildren of nowadays Syrian refugees will face a similar destiny. The Lebanese government did not grant refugee status to a single person who fled from Syria – also to prevent them from long-term settlement, as it happened with the Palestinians.

As one of few countries worldwide, Lebanon has not signed the Geneva Conventions. Even the mere counting of refugees, conducted by UNHCR, was ceased in 2015 after pressure from the Lebanese government – that’s why the number of 1,5 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon is just a rough estimation. Many observers guess that the 2-million-mark has already been exceeded. If you are counting half a million Palestinian refugees, there is a ratio of one refugee to two Lebanese citizens.

Thus, Lebanon tops the list of countries which received the highest figure of refugees compared to their total population. Converted to German circumstances, this would mean 25 million refugees on German territoryYoussef: very good (while it is in fact about 1 million, between 2015 and 2017).

That’s why tensions among the Lebanese population are on the rise. The country is still recovering from the repercussions of a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990 and killed over hundred thousand of people. The tensed fiscal situation and simmering ethno-religious conflicts give evidence of lacking national stability.

Moreover, the economic gap is widening – prices for food and rent have risen significantly in the last years. In Beirut, a small group of wealthy inhabitants have rebuilt entire neighborhoods with luxury apartments and thus raised the rent – the price for an ordinary 3-room-apartment is comparable to one in Hamburg or Munich, while the Lebanese average income lies at about 700 Euros.

The fact that Syrian refugees are increasingly exploited in the low-pay sector and in the black market, even accepting the poorest wages because of a lack of alternatives, and thus tightening the whole labor market, is further exacerbatingHamed: Syria had been under socialism for more than 35 years, which resulted in a higher level of luxury compared to Lebanon, where the economic system is open (and that made Lebanon for many years the country of luxury for lots of Syrians). So the Syrian people were used to work in many different jobs like builders or street workers or street sellers and so on. And according to the problem of unemployment, the Lebanese rather employ Syrians because they accept less salary than the Lebanese people. And the black market is not typical only for Syrians. A lot of Lebanese work under the black market and the government does not ask a lot about their work, because this could be another pressure for them above all problem that they already have in Lebanon. the situationDana: Yes that is right, but it is still somehow different between Syrians and Lebanese and it is still more complicated for Syrians to work. The pressure on Syrians is more powerful than on the Lebanese because they have different kind of problems. A lot of Syrians do the work Lebanese wouldn’t do. This type of work is very important in the society. The Syrians got paid less than the Lebanese for the same work, just because they are Syrians, which is a very big disgusting discrimination..

Considering this powder keg of socio-economic imbalances and conflicts that flame up, it’s surprising that bigger riots have not appeared by nowYoussef: YES!. Yet they can’t be ruled out for the future – especially, if extremist groups misuse social hardships to support their ideology. Not least for that reason, the international community should ensure financial support and improve the situation of refugees and locals alike, to make sure there is no furtherSouad: I like this, very true. escalationYoussef: It’s surprising how the west sees Hezbollah and portrays it. It’s also very interesting that you were able to portray and analyze and predict what will happen in Lebanon, especially at the end of the article. Proud. It’s very complicated and most Lebanese citizens ignore the truth..

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