In the past, as workers, they helped rebuild Lebanon from the rubble of war. Today they seek refuge there from their own war, the bloodiest in recent decades. The Syrian refugees – one million according to the UNHCR, but in reality many more – who since 2011 have been crossing the border to take refuge in a safe country.
“Lebanon is welcoming and has a generous heart,” Pope Francis has said, referring to an unequivocal fact: Lebanon (a little larger than Cyprus with 4.5 million inhabitants, excluding Syrian refugees and 250,000 Palestinians) receives more refugees per capita than any other country in the world, following a centuries-old tradition that has always seen its rugged mountains as a shelter for persecuted minorities.
Some parties have made a “sovereign” flag of the phenomenon in the wake of the slogan “Lebanese First” and “Send the Syrians Home”.
But there is another problem: terms such as “refugee” or “displaced person” in Lebanon make no sense as the country has never signed the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees. The result is a legislative vacuum: there are no official refugee camps and most Syrians in Lebanon (one in four) have been living for years in a legal limbo that often prevents them from obtaining a residence permit and thus from finding work.
“It’s paradoxical, there are wealthy Syrians who come to Lebanon on holiday and go to the seaside,” says Ahmad, from Tripoli, “while I, who can’t go back to Syria, live here but have a tough time supporting myself respectably.” Some do volunteer work and some study, while others get by as artists, musicians, online teachers of Arabic, or work as waiters, off the books.
And then there’s the other side of the coin, that of the most fortunate. Those who have money. “My work permit? I took care of it in a day,” designer Noor Azhari says with a smile. “I’m from Aleppo but left in 2011. You’ve just got to pay. It’s easy, right?”