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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Lebanon on the Brink

The influx of refugees is creating a new class of poor

With one hand, Rose holds tight to the curly-haired girl with inquisitive eyes. With the other, she carries empty plastic containers in a plastic bag. As she does every Thursday, the 30-year-old mother waits with her 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca, for lunch for her family.

Around them, dozens of people gather in the hall of a dispensary that doubles as a soup kitchen several days a week. Rose and Rebecca, along with most of those waiting for food, are not refugees displaced by the multiple conflicts shaking the region around Lebanon. They are impoverished Lebanese nationals who have always lived in Naba’a, a Christian suburb of Beirut.

In the past three years, more and more Lebanese have joined the ranks of the poor because of the influx of an estimated 1.5 million refugees from neighboring Syria — a staggering figure, representing one refugee for every three people already residing in Lebanon. International organizations and local government officials describe the impact of the refugee crisis on the country as “disastrous” because of fierce competition for jobs, inflation of food prices and rental costs, a slowing economy and growing needs that have overwhelmed social services, infrastructure and government resources.

Increasingly, the Lebanese population perceives the Syrian presence in the country as an unbearable burden. In turn, Syrian refugees, many of whom have lost their homes and family members in the ongoing civil war that has destroyed their homeland, speak of an increase in negative attitudes toward them and complain about abusive work conditions and high rents.

Although the resultant tensions between refugees and host communities remain contained for the moment, experts say there are growing risks of the situation becoming unmanageable.

“At the social level, the explosion is going to happen,” says Michel Constantin, CNEWA’s regional director for Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. “It’s inevitable. Poverty is escalating and the needs are growing.”

According to the latest statistics released by Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs, 8 percent of the population lives below the low poverty line ($2.80 a day) and 28 percent live below the high poverty line ($4 a day). An August 2014 study showed another 170,000 Lebanese citizens sank below the low poverty line.

In recent years, the government started a program to help the most vulnerable Lebanese with food coupons, health assistance and support for children’s education.

“There are entire new generations that are being raised in poverty,” says Dr. Jean Mrad, director of the National Poverty Targeting Program. Dr. Mrad concedes the $28 million yearly budget of the program is far from sufficient; an additional $55 million is needed to support 350,000 Lebanese over the next three years.

The roots of poverty in Lebanon long predate the start of the Syrian conflict. Years of political instability and longstanding economic problems have decimated the middle class in the country. The conflict in neighboring Syria has only exacerbated existing problems.

While the entire country is affected by the crisis, rural areas in the north and in the Bekaa Valley have been especially impacted; their economies once depended on trade with Syria. Since the Lebanese government closed the borders with Syria, trade ceased and incomes plummeted.

Despite this bleak picture, the United Nations Development Program recently noted the presence of refugees has had some positive effect on the economy. Some businesses are benefiting from the availability of cheap Syrian labor, and landlords are gaining income from tenants. The beneficiaries, however, are a few better-off Lebanese in areas where refugees are concentrated.

For the rest, it is a very different story.

At the dispensary in Naba’a, which is run by a consortium of women religious, the endemic poverty among the Lebanese is self-evident.

“There is an overwhelming demand for help from the Lebanese,” says Nathalie Antonios, a social worker at the dispensary. “We have to reject a lot of cases of needy people because our capacity is limited.”

The food assistance program began a year ago and helps 70 families weekly.

As lunchtime approaches, dozens of families start gathering around a glass door at the back of the hall. They each carry a number and wait for their turn to be served a portion of chickpeas and fava beans and a pack of pita bread.

After they recite a prayer, food is distributed. An anonymous Lebanese family provides the food every week.

Waiting in line are elderly people who have nobody to support them, disabled individuals who need expensive medication and many unskilled laborers who have lost their jobs. To get by, many try to divide the portion they receive to make it last over several days. Rose says without this weekly meal, her family would go hungry.

“Our situation has been very difficult,” she sighs. In addition to Rebecca, Rose has a 4-year-old son, Ralph. “My husband paints walls. He keeps distributing business cards to find work,” she says. “Nobody is calling him; too many foreigners.”

The religious sisters who run the dispensary speak of parents pulling their children out of schools, people looking for food in garbage bins, and families eating uncooked food because they cannot afford to pay gas bills.

Social workers say these growing economic difficulties are causing more and more problems — including domestic violence, drug abuse and developmental difficulties among children.

With the government not regulating the employment of Syrian refugees, Lebanese workers, skilled and unskilled, find themselves vulnerable. Many cannot compete with desperate Syrians willing to accept low wages to survive.

On the other hand, Syrian refugees see themselves as victims, exploited by greedy employers and landlords.

“Everybody takes advantage of us here,” says Anjood Hayat, a 42-year-old mother of four who lost her home in the battles over the western Syrian city of Homs. She has been living in Burj al Barajneh, a poor neighborhood south of Beirut. “We have nobody to turn to.”

Mrs. Hayat, who owned a grocery shop in Syria with her husband, finds herself working as a housekeeper in Lebanon. With her physically impaired husband unable to work, she has to feed her three young daughters partly with meager United Nations aid through local charity groups and partly with the sporadic incomes she and her 16-year-old son earn.

She says her son used to work more than 12 hours a day at a pastry shop for less than $300 a month. She says she made her son quit the job after his boss burned the boy’s arm with a hot plate of sweets for falling asleep at work.

He is now a day laborer who unloads trucks of vegetables at a market.

“What we make is barely enough to survive,” says Mrs. Hayat, who rents for $300 a month a shabby two-room apartment, where electrical wires hang from the walls and rotten water pipes lie exposed.

Part of the problem, some say, is the disorganized way Lebanese authorities have dealt with the crisis.

“Perhaps the best solution is to group Syrian refugees together,” says Michel Constantin. “This would help organize and manage assistance to them and reduce competition between them and host communities.”

Today, from the tiniest villages to the biggest cities, Syrian refugees may be found — a result of years of an open door policy for Syrians and the reluctance of the Lebanese government to build refugee camps, as other host countries such as Jordan and Turkey have done.

The specter of refugees remaining indefinitely in the country taps deep into the Lebanese psyche. The presence of more than 400,000 Palestinians in decrepit refugee camps established in 1948 remains a contentious issue.

Taking notice of the increasingly negative tone of the country regarding the presence of Syrian refugees, the Lebanese government decided recently to filter the entry of Syrians by imposing tough new regulations.

Where once Syrians enjoyed freedom of access and the ability to reside for six months and work without restrictions, as of January 2015, Syrians wishing to come to Lebanon need visas and specific documents, such as hotel reservations, proof of need for medical treatment and appointments with foreign embassies.

For many observers, these restrictive measures have arrived too late. With no solutions to the Syrian conflict in sight, locals fear many of the refugees will remain indefinitely in the country. Today, there are hundreds — possibly thousands — of Syrian children who were born in Lebanon since the conflict started. They have never known any other home but Lebanon.

“There is a lot of anxiety among the Lebanese,” says Father Paul Karam, the president of Caritas Lebanon. The international community has a responsibility to help Lebanon, he adds, by receiving more refugees and looking for viable political solutions for the conflict in Syria.

Fears of the presence of Syrian refugees are not only social and economic; there are also concerns regarding the country’s security. With Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite Muslim militant group, supporting the Syrian government, Lebanon is a target for Sunni Muslim militant groups. Last year, several suicide bombers — claimed by Sunni extremists — targeted dense Shiite neighborhoods in the outskirts of Beirut.

Although there have not been any attacks in recent months, the fear still looms large that radical elements will infiltrate the anonymous masses of refugees.

In August, a fierce battle pitted Lebanese soldiers against Syrian extremists who infiltrated the border town of Ersal. Sixteen soldiers were killed and dozens, wounded. Months after the clashes ended, extremists still hold some 29 soldiers and members of the police forces as hostages. These unresolved kidnappings impacted the way the Lebanese view Syrian refugees, even though the vast majority was not involved.

Suspicion toward refugees is also linked to a perceived increase in petty crime rates in many areas. Several municipalities have imposed curfews on Syrians, claiming their circulation at night poses security risks. The roots of tension are cultural and religious, too; sectarian balance among the various confessions remains fragile, and rights and privileges are jealously guarded.

“They are foreigners, they have different habits,” says Faten Alawi, 52, an unemployed widow who is responsible for a 12-year-old son and an ailing mother. Mrs. Alawi, who says she lost her job at a garment factory to two Syrian workers who agreed to work together for her $500 monthly salary, says she has not met any of the Syrian refugees living in her neighborhood.

Mrs. Alawi lives in the Palestinian camp of Dbayeh, a hilly neighborhood of modest one-story homes connected by narrow alleys. She is among poor Lebanese families who were displaced during the civil war who have been living for decades side by side with Christian Palestinian refugees.

In the past three years, this neighborhood of 500 families has seen the influx of around 60 Syrian families living in overcrowded homes.

“The situation is hopeless,” says Elias Habib, the director of the Joint Christian Committee for Social Service in Lebanon, a nongovernmental organization supported by CNEWA that runs educational, awareness and psychosocial activities for women and children in the Dbayeh camp.

“You hear of many young people who want to leave to work abroad, but it’s not easy,” he says.

A hallmark of Lebanese society for decades, acquiring work and immigration visas to Western countries or even the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf is a difficult process — especially for those Lebanese workers who may be uneducated and unskilled.

“I was used to a much higher standard. It’s tough to accept that I am poorer now,” says Tony Sayah, 45, a Lebanese contractor living in the Dbayeh camp.

Mr. Sayah, a father of a 12-year-old girl and a 9-year-old boy, says he has been working less and less since the influx of Syrians. “Syrian refugees easily beat my prices,” he says.

“They eat a biscuit or a sandwich all day long or sleep at the construction site,” he adds. “We can’t beat that.”

With governmental social services traditionally meager, the recently impoverished and unemployed have to rely on assistance from charity groups and religious institutions.

Johanna Ghyoot, a Belgian Little Sister of Nazareth, has provided health services to the residents of the Dbayeh camp since 2006. She has seen many Lebanese men such as Tony Sayah lose jobs in construction and in restaurants in recent months.

“We are overwhelmed with the sheer numbers asking for help,” she says. “They ask for everything: food, clothes, medication and money for school tuitions.”

In one recent day, the center she runs with another sister received 67 phone calls and visits from 43 people. She says they have to turn down many of the requests because the donations they receive are never enough.

Sister Johanna makes home visits daily in the camp, providing medical care to the needy.

“You see food becoming more and more monotonous or children staying home because parents were late paying tuition,” she says, describing how more poverty is creeping into the households she visits.

Even though most of the aid groups have started to allocate up to 30 percent of the funds they receive to help Syrian refugees for hosting communities, the situation continues to deteriorate.

“It’s becoming harder and harder to raise more funds for Lebanon,” says CNEWA’s Michel Constantin. “Next year may be worse.”

Raed Rafei is a Beirut-based journalist and independent filmmaker whose writing has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Forbes Arabia and the Daily Star of Lebanon.

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