A bittersweet revolution
For Syrian activists in Lebanon
Neighbours: A series of seven stories
Wherever we are in the world – home or away, in the place we were born or somewhere else – there will always be someone next door. A neighbour, a person living by our side. We may differ in manners and ideas of how things should be done, but we will remain closely connected – because borders and walls, bushes and fences from metal or wood, connect us more than keep us apart.
Lebanon, bordered on one side by the Mediterranean and on the others by olive, orange and wheat fields, may have complicated, if not outright thorny, official relations with its neighbours today. But the relationships nurtured by people are different. By their very essence they traverse borders, and connect what is on one side with the other.
There is also a distinct neighbourly culture within Lebanon, which connects people living in the same street or building: a culture of chatting, sharing and helping one another. Some might argue that this is fading away with time; that close neighbourly relations are something of the past. Either way, there seems to be an inherent nostalgia associated with the concept of neighbours, and we are interested in finding out its current relevance.
The seven stories in this series on Neighbours, all written or produced by former participants to our workshops on journalism and writing, set out to do that.
First out is the tender memory of Sarah Khazem of early morning rituals with a temporary next-door neighbour; following that is Abby Sewell’s conversations with Syrian activists on the revolutionary events in Lebanon. Layla Yammine’s meeting with an antiques dealer in Beirut’s Basta neighbourhood comes third; fourth is Andrea Olea’s notes of kitchen conversations with two Palestinian friends.
Hamoud Mjeidel then takes us to the families residing in Umm Ali’s building in Shatila, and Ghadir Hamadi invites us to hear her family history spanning Lebanon and the Gulf. Rayan Sukkar and Samih Mahmoud, finally, brings us voices from those who may be considered neighbours of the ongoing Lebanese uprising.
On Lebanon’s Independence Day, in a small tent city that had sprung up next to Tripoli’s central Nour Square over the course of more than a month of daily anti-government protests, a mixed group of Lebanese and Syrians were sitting in a shelter fitted out with cushions and candles as a reprieve from the crowds.
The conversation turned to the ebb and flow of the number of protesters in the streets. One of the Syrians observed the luxury of being able to go down to the square and return home afterward day after day.
“In Syria, you protest and then you don’t come home,” she said.
“In Syria, you protest and then you don’t come home.”
In 2011, as the Arab Spring swept Syria and other neighbouring countries, Lebanon saw its own protests against the country’s sect-based political system. But they did not grow wide enough to pose an existential threat to the existing political order.
Eight years later, they might have.
When the “October Revolution” erupted in Lebanon with mass protests calling for the downfall of the entrenched political class, the landscape of the country and the region was vastly different. Syria had fallen into a protracted and brutal civil war. There were more than 900,000 registered Syrian refugees in the country and potentially hundreds of thousands more unregistered.
Some had become refugees because of their activism in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Many more were displaced by the armed conflict that followed.
For some – particularly those who had been activists in Syria – the Lebanese uprising seemed like a second chance for the pro-democracy movements that quickly deteriorated after 2011.
“The protests that happened in Lebanon, from my point of view, brought back hope that people in an Arab country can make a change,” said a 30-year-old Syrian from Aleppo now living in Beirut.
“The protests that happened in Lebanon, from my point of view, brought back hope that people in an Arab country can make a change.”
Like most of those interviewed for this piece, he asked that his name not be published because of the sensitivity of the topic and out of fear of being targeted.
As a student, he had taken part in protests in Syria before he fled almost eight years ago. Now, like many Syrian activists in Lebanon, he works in the NGO field and volunteers providing aid in the refugee camps to Syrians in harsher economic circumstances than his own.
When the protests first erupted in Lebanon, he feared.
“I was afraid that it would happen here like in Syria, that they would shoot at people, disappear people, kill people. But no, the Lebanese revolution is a more peaceful revolution and a revolution that is creating beautiful things.”
When watching thousands of demonstrators parading through Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square on Independence Day, hoisting their flags defiantly as they called for the “downfall of the regime,” he began to cry.
“It gave me hope that one day this could happen in all the Arab states and especially in Syria,” he said.
“If not now, God willing, in the future. There will be protests and a change will come.”
”If not now, God willing, in the future. There will be protests and a change will come.”
Still, he kept his involvement in the Lebanese protests limited, like most Syrians in the country. Some stayed away from the squares altogether, fearful of violence or being targeted by security forces.
“I am quite sure that every Syrian is afraid of the political situation, because we have our own experience,” said a 25-year-old student and aspiring filmmaker from Damascus who fled to Beirut five years ago.
Sitting in a cafe in Beirut’s Hamra neighbourhood, he lowered his voice to avoid being heard by the waiters whenever the music paused.
“We have had eight years of these events. We’re afraid of any political events, because anything that happens in Lebanon will affect us.”
That anxiety, he said, “makes us behave as observers watching from afar. One might have an opinion and one might not have an opinion.”
Some Syrian activists have joined the protests, but in a limited capacity. They remain on the fringes of the action, and some said they try to avoid speaking much so that other demonstrators – or security forces – do not notice their Syrian accents.
A 29-year-old Syrian media activist in Tripoli, who has been living in Lebanon since 2009 – and now, because of the war, is unable to return – said he feels a strong connection to the country, although it is not his own. Like his Lebanese friends, he has the usual complaints about failing public infrastructure and government corruption.
On top of that, like most Syrians in Lebanon, he has to endure daily complaints about their continued presence in the country. The refugees have become a popular whipping boy for Lebanese politicians – particularly former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who during the protests became the target of a particularly bawdy chant.
“I am quite sure that every Syrian is afraid of the political situation, because we have our own experience.”
The uprising, said the Syrian in Tripoli, gave him hope that Lebanese people were rejecting the xenophobic rhetoric of political leaders.
“In the beginning I went down quite a bit and joined the sit-ins,” he said.
But over time, he began to feel less comfortable.
“There is a tent my friends and I made but I don’t sit there a lot… I go down sometimes for half an hour to see the situation and come back.”
(Speaking in the living room of the apartment he shared with friends, he closed the balcony door to avoid being heard. Later that evening, he passed by the square and greeted his friends who were sitting in the tent).
His concern, he said, was less that the protesters in the square might have an issue with the presence of Syrians – although some Syrians who joined the protests have been told that their presence is not welcome – and more that involvement by Syrians could be spun negatively by the media and Lebanese political figures.
“I’m not able to go a lot, because I feel that my presence or the presence of any other Syrian is negative for the revolution more than it is positive,” he said.
Sara Sayouf is in a different situation. The 26-year-old art student is the daughter of a Lebanese mother and grew up in northern Lebanon’s Akkar region – but because her father is Syrian, under Lebanese law, she is Syrian and not Lebanese.
“I very much feel that I need to be in the revolution because I am living here.”
Sayouf has taken part in the protests through art. She painted a mural next to Tripoli’s central Nour Square of Alaa Abou Fakhr, a protester who was shot and killed by an Army Intelligence soldier while blocking a road in the town of Khaldeh, south of Beirut. In another painting, Sayouf depicted a mother holding a child who had died at a hospital door after being denied entrance for lack of money.
“I very much feel that I need to be in the revolution because I am living here, and everything I have lived has been as someone Lebanese, not Syrian,” Sayouf said.
In particular, she has protested for changes in Lebanon’s nationality law, which does not allow Lebanese women married to foreigners – like her mother – to pass on their nationality to their children.
But, at the same time, she said, “I’m afraid to take part in things like closing the streets or banks. There’s danger if there is a riot or something… that because I am Syrian, if I went to jail, they would send me to Syria because my nationality is not Lebanese.”
Sayouf has legal residency in Lebanon, but the majority of Syrian citizens in Lebanon do not. According to the United Nations’ 2018 vulnerability assessment of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, nearly three-quarters of those surveyed lacked legal residency, with most citing cost as the largest obstacle. Lebanon is not a signatory to the 1951 refugee convention and regards the Syrians legally as “displaced”, not “refugees.” In the months before the beginning of the uprising, Lebanese authorities began to deport an increasing number of Syrians found without legal documents.
This has kept many Syrians in a furtive existence, fearful of passing army checkpoints lest they be stopped and arrested. Since the beginning of the protests, it is also one of the reasons that most Syrians have stayed away from the squares.
“I can’t participate,” said another Syrian activist, a 38-year-old translator living in northern Lebanon’s Akkar region, where he volunteers in the camps.
“Our presence here is so fragile, exactly as the revolution’s nature in the Lebanese community… If we participate, we’re illegal people participating in the local affairs of a foreign territory. The government is busy now, but not blind.”
“The government is busy now, but not blind.”
His history had given him reason to be wary. In 2011, he was twice arrested in Syria, and tortured while jailed in Homs for suspected involvement in the political opposition. While many detained activists disappeared for good, he was one of the lucky ones; due to jail overcrowding, he was released. He fled to Lebanon two years later after being called up for army service.
Now, while keeping a distance from the Lebanese protests, he has watched with wonder as the uprising unfolds.
“The guys here have, despite all, a kind of freedom of speech,” he said.
“It’s a luxury we never had in Syria, even in our dreams. This generation [in Lebanon] is so open and educated. They know how things work in the big world. We, in Syria, had a very narrow vision. It led us astray.”
He paused before adding ruefully,
“The only lesson [the Lebanese] can learn from us is keep away from confronting your army and police, no matter what.”
When asked if the comparison with the Lebanese uprising makes him feel regret for the path Syria’s revolution took, he hesitated.
“Regretful for Syria? Well, since I knew the situation in Syria from when I was a young boy, I was regretful.”
When the Syrian revolution began, he said, he anticipated bloodshed, knowing the country’s history of failed uprisings and brutal repression.
“I can’t regret due to a comparison with a chapter of the Lebanese revolution. But yes, I wish ours wasn’t a bloody one.”
Neighbours was produced as part of the 2019-2020 Switch Perspective project, supported by GIZ. All illustrations by Ismaël Abdallah.
All interviews for this piece were done in November, before the demonstrations turned confrontational and violent.