Wadi Khaled, right where northern Lebanon meets the south of Syria, became home to some of the first refugees in the early days of the Syrian war. People here, who did not become Lebanese citizens until the 1990s, maintain mostly good relations with their Syrian neighbours – but face more hardship than many others in the country.
“The war has devastated everything.”
Hadi, a 16-year old Syrian who prefers to only use his first name, has just left the bakery in Wadi Khaled where he is currently working, and is on his way to the mosque for Friday prayers. He came here from the Karm Al-Zaytoon area in Homs in 2014, fleeing with his parents and two brothers to seek shelter from the fighting.
“I have made good friends here. I love Wadi Khaled, but now I can barely remember things from Homs”, says Hadi.
Wadi Khaled is a small town and region with surrounding farmlands and mountains, some 70 kilometres inland from Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli. The distance to Homs, across the border in Syria, is no more than half of that. Mount Lebanon, the range reaching across most of Lebanon, extends its eastern ridges across Wadi Khaled, then towards the plains of Syria. Here and there are houses and buildings under construction, the heights of which rarely exceed two floors.
The region, which sits literally on the Lebanese-Syrian border, is where some of the first refugees arrived in 2011, when the conflict in Syria began to turn violent. Historically, Wadi Khaled has been home to farming and smallholder families, often of mixed Lebanese and Syrian descent. Before visas were imposed on Syrians in 2014 – the first time Lebanon did so – people would move easily across the border, and having relatives on either side was a rule rather than exception. Today, the town and twenty-two small villages that make up Wadi Khaled remain home to a large Syrian population (no population survey has been made since 1994, but local estimates say it is likely that Syrians, both long-time residents and newly arrived refugees, make up about half of the residents).
Many refugee families in Wadi Khaled live in informal settlements (resembling camps but not seen as such by the Lebanese government, which has a policy of not establishing formal camps) in villages like Hicheh, Al-Awwadeh, Jaramanaya and Rajm Hussein, connected to one another only by bumpy roads. To reach Tripoli, one has to take a minivan for two hours and pay 4,000 Lebanese lira (a bit less than $3); anyone going to Homs, on the Syrian side, would pay only 1,000 lira. Travelling there was easy before, but has become much more complicated since the border crossing in Wadi Khaled closed in 2014. For most Syrians, who need a visa to enter Lebanon, it is not possible to travel back and forth anyway.
Citizenship, no citizenship
All of this shared history is reflected in something central in the reality of life for people in Wadi Khaled: the issue of nationality. Although most of its long-standing inhabitants have lived there for centuries, it was not until 1994 that they became naturalised. Before that, most were stateless.
“I, Sheikh Arab Al Ghannam Muhamad Ismail Ezzo, the undersigned with my seal below, hereby certify that the person in question is personally known to me and, accordingly, this statement is attributed.”
The former member of the Lebanese parliament recites his grandfather’s statement by heart, holding the seal he inherited from him between his hands. Jamal Ismail, no longer an MP, navigates the small roads with ease as he drives around Wadi Khaled. Remembering his grandfather, he suddenly gets transported back to the days of his childhood, when he used to assist him in issuing statements like this to natives of Wadi Khaled.
“We would light a small lamp with kerosene oil. I would put the seal over the black smoke coming from the fire, add a little saliva on the paper, and then press the seal on it,” he recalls.
Before becoming an MP in 2000, Ismail was Wadi Khaled’s representative to the state for many years, during which he tried to secure Lebanese nationality to inhabitants of Wadi Khaled, including members of minority communities like Kurds, Alawites and different Christians in the area. Many people had tried to claim the nationality themselves in the 1950s, but failed to do so.
“What they got instead was an ‘under study’ nationality,” says Ismail – meaning that they only held a statement issued by two local leaders, one of them his grandfather.
The other one, says Ismail, ran an office in Tripoli along with three other sheikhs in the 1960s where they offered copies of that statement – and, thereby, proof of Lebanese nationality – for only five Lebanese pounds.
“Around two thousand people at the time held that false paper,” he says.
Most of them were people with nomadic roots, who had been in a constant displacement across several neighboring countries, including Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
Wadi Khaled is facing an acute absence of development projects, a lack of political representation, and geographical distance from the political and economic centre in Lebanon.
In Wadi Khaled today, the number of refugee families is significantly higher than at the onset of the war. Many still preserve perfectly good relationships with their Lebanese neighbours, due to the region’s strong cross-border commercial links and many mixed marriages.
“In the Hicheh region, there are many marriages between us and Syrians from Tal Kalakh, Baba Amr and al-Zara,” says Ismail.
But most Syrians – in Wadi Khaled as well as elsewhere – have to multiply their efforts in order to mitigate the kind of deprivation they are facing in Lebanon.
Hadi, the 16-year-old from Karm Al-Zeytoon in Homs, has chosen to work in the bakery to help his family subsist instead of pursuing his education.
“I haven’t been able to go to school since fifth grade. In the bakery now I earn 10,000 Lebanese lira ($6.5) per day,” he says.
A recent study on marginalisation as a result of the war in Syria says that Wadi Khaled is facing “an acute absence of development projects, a lack of political representation, and geographical distance from the political and economic centre in Lebanon.” This puts Syrians, who often access housing through an informal rental market and depend on support from the UN (through vouchers or cards that can be used at local stores to buy food) and other organisations, in a particularly vulnerable position.
Everyone is hit by hardship
In Lebanon, the arrival of between one and two million refugees since the war began has opened a debate on competition in the labor market (despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Syrians worked in the country before, and Lebanon’s economy heavily depends on non-Lebanese workers, including some 250,000 people from countries across Asia and Africa).
John Chalcraft, in the co-authored book Migration et politique au Moyen-Orient, argues that both pro and anti Syrian voices in Lebanon generally see market-oriented work migration as a societal “good”, admitting that the agriculture and construction industry could not do without “cheap, hard-working and productive Syrian workers.” Also, as the International Labour Organisation points out: refugees create additional local demand for goods and services, meaning that at least some jobs occupied by Syrians did not come at the expense of Lebanese workers.
“I never felt like a stranger taking a job away from the Lebanese,” says Abu Khaled, a man from Homs who prefers to use his first name only, and is the perhaps first migrant ironworker to make a successful career in Wadi Khaled.
“Now, I manage to provide my daughters with the education they deserve,” he says.
In a small centre belonging to Akkar Network for Development (an NGO aiming to improve the lives of people in the Akkar region through a number of projects) in Jandouleh, one of the villages in Wadi Khaled, a couple of stairs lead up to the entrance where the word jil, “generation”, has been written on a bright blue wall. Inside, social worker Noujoud El-Hassan is hosting a group of young men and women.
“Whether Lebanese or Syrian, we all lack basic necessities here in Wadi Khaled,” she says.
“Graduates with higher education don’t find jobs. Even our water, which comes from Al-Safa River, is polluted. That’s why Syrians here suffer more than elsewhere in Lebanon.”
Two years ago, she took part in a protest with over 250 graduates from Wadi Khaled against the practice of employing people from other parts of Lebanon to local jobs, when the region has such a big problem of unemployment. El-Hassan herself holds a BA in Arabic literature from the Lebanese University in Tripoli, even though it was not the field she had wanted to study.
“Most other majors required regular presence in class, something that my family could not afford in terms of transportation,” she says.
Across Lebanon, refugee families encounter racism and discrimination, both on an institutionalised and personal level. There have been many attacks and racist assaults, often met with impunity.
Like many other Syrians, Abu Khaled was already working in Lebanon before the war broke out. In 2014, during the fighting in Homs, he brought his family as well. But reaching safety did not mean that their worries were over.
“Even basic services such as electricity, which was still accessible in Homs at the beginning of the crisis, are often interrupted in Wadi Khaled,” he says.
While all of Lebanon faces regular power cuts, it is possible in most places to use private generators during those hours. In Wadi Khaled that did not become possible until 2015.
Abu Khaled’s family decided to rent a small house in Tripoli, the only way for their eldest daughter to frequent her university and their youngest child to enrol in a better school. Abu Khaled now lives alone in Wadi Khaled, earning money from his ironwork, and makes weekly visits to his family. But he misses having them around daily.
“I always felt like living among my family and friends in Wadi Khaled,” he says.
Syrians are hit harder
24-year old Widad (not her real name), also from Homs, lives alone with her young daughter since her husband was arrested in Syria two years ago, when going there to check in on their house. She now lives in a small room in her sister’s house in Wadi Khaled, with her daughter and two nephews.
“But I feel no privacy. The apartment is shared by four families, over 31 people live there,” she says.
After being involved in an entrepreneurship program run by Akkar Network for Development, Widad now earns a small amount from sewing. Her skills helped her get funding to install a sewing machine in the unpainted room in her sister’s house. She registered with the UNHCR after arriving in Lebanon and asked for housing support, but has not been offered any.
“I was even filmed by an employee and someone wrote down what I said. But my situation has not improved,” she says.
Across Lebanon, refugee families continue to struggle with these issues. They also encounter racism and discrimination, both on an institutionalised and personal level. There have been many attacks and racist assaults, often met with impunity. On the political level, the situation does not get any better. Lebanon’s foreign minister Gebran Bassil recently made several anti-Syrian statements, in tweets and speeches. While he has received strong criticism for scapegoating refugees for Lebanon’s economical problems (including calls for his resignation), he has also met with a lot of support from his followers.
Maysoon Bakeer, a young woman from Hama who lives in Akkar, another part of Lebanon’s north, was told to not talk “very Syrian” at her workplace.
“A co-worker stated explicitly that my accent annoyed her, and asked me to change it,” she says.
Like many Syrians, she also receives a lower salary than her Lebanese colleagues, even for doing the same job.
“My previous salary was $200 per month, because I am Syrian,” says Bakeer, who currently now holds another job, with an international organisation that has a policy to not allow wage discrimination.
Even if the borders are no longer open, staying connected to Syria is something that people in Wadi Khaled always wish to do.
Diala Chehade, who is head of the Center for Defending Civil Rights and Liberties (an NGO defending human rights through various social and developmental projects) and an international criminal law specialist, says that the reality of life differs for Syrians depending on their financial and social status.
“Those from the middle class, including artists, activists and journalists, are mingling with their Lebanese peers. But there has been a conflict of interest between Syrians practicing unskilled jobs and Lebanese.”
It is important to acknowledge, says Chehade, that becoming a refugee is not a choice: there were coercive and political reasons for people to leave their country, and any solution to end the crisis must address these causes.
Lebanon and Syria’s common history goes long back, and has to a large extent been shaped by family, community and social interactions like those between people in Wadi Khaled. But there have also been periods of conflict, hostility and mistrust. For 30 years during and after Lebanon’s civil war, the Syrian army occupied large parts of the country. Even if that period is over, it has yet to fade away from collective memory. For both Lebanese and Syrians, it is hard to see an end to the current situation, since it fully depends on a solution to the Syrian crisis, which does not seem to be coming any time soon.
Return to Syria?
When asked if he wants to go back to Homs, 16-year-old Hadi responds with a quick and firm “no”. At first, he does not give a clear explanation – not before being asked if he lost someone in Syria.
“Yes, my brother was killed. He was hit by a missile while visiting his friend,” he says with a low voice, avoiding eye contact.
Abu Khaled and his family see no chance to return either.
“A couple of days ago, our neighbors sent us a video of our home. Everything inside had been stolen,” says Umm Khaled, his wife.
But the main reason for staying is the last memory Abu Khaled has from Syria, of being arbitrarily arrested for two months. The idea of going back is much worse than continuing to split his life between Tripoli and Wadi Khaled.
Even if the borders are no longer open, staying connected to Syria is something that people in Wadi Khaled always wish to do. Besides the cross-border family and social bonds, there is also a sense that nearby Homs can bring more efficient and cheap services than the Lebanese state.
“We used to get hospitalised in Syria, it is much cheaper and closer to us,” says Ismail, the former MP who used to help his grandfather issue statements of nationality.
He is still driving his car through Wadi Khaled, not far from the border.
“In the past, we were connected to Homs by the railway. When I ordered as an MP to asphalt this road I did not remove the rails which were still there. Someday, they will function and link us again. Can’t you feel how they stick out underneath us?”
The production of this article was funded by the Migration Media Award (MMA), a project implemented by the Open Media Hub (OMH) and ICMDP. Joudy El-Asmar won the second prize in the Arabic Online category of the 2nd edition on the MMA.