BHANIN, Minyeh-Dinnieh — A few days after the torching of the camp where they used to live, Syrian families lined up outside the Bhanin municipality building as trucks unloaded piles of goods to be distributed by one of the numerous NGOs responding to the incident.
The trucks brought mattresses, blankets, cleaning supplies, sacks of potatoes, gas canisters — all the basic supplies needed for a household, even though it was still unclear where most of the refugees would be living.
Meanwhile, at the site of what had been Camp 009, just off the highway, some of the former residents were picking through the charred remnants of what had been their homes.
Where one tent used to be, a pile of olives peeked through the ashes. On the foundations of another, a group of young boys were methodically setting fire to the remnants of a Quran — the traditional method of disposing of damaged copies of the sacred text.
“When we saw the fire, we ran. We didn’t take anything from the house — we went out in just our clothes,” former camp resident Salah al-Mohammed told L’Orient Today. He and his family found refuge with neighbors and were now waiting to see whether they would be allowed to rebuild and return to the camp.
Images of the camp consumed by flames after the Dec. 26 arson attack sent a shock wave through Lebanon and beyond.
The brutality of the act that displaced some 400 people prompted both a groundswell of solidarity in the local community and a wave of donations from abroad.
At the same time, the burning of the camp and the reaction that followed highlighted the political factors that complicate humanitarian efforts in Lebanon and the often disjointed nature of the aid mechanisms set up to help refugees in the country.
Shock and solidarity
While the circumstances of the arson remain under investigation, Syrian and Lebanese residents of the area said it had escalated from an “individual problem” between a few members of the two communities.
Several local sources said the fight had started over money some of the Syrians were owed by their employers, the Mir family, who are prominent local citrus producers.
A resident of the camp originally from Homs, who gave her name only as Mariam, said she did not know what had sparked the conflict, but that after an initial fight between Syrians and a Lebanese man who entered the mini-market in the camp, the Lebanese man “came back with an armed group, and they started with weapons and shooting, and we ran away.” Then, she said, “they came in and burned the camp.”
The Mir family issued a statement after the incident asserting that Syrian workers had been “taking their wages without any decrease” and that one of the Mir family members had gone to the camp to “settle a matter with some of the workers” when some of the Syrians attacked him and hit him with sticks. The statement denied that any of the Mir family members had taken part in the burning of the camp — an action it said the clan “strongly condemns.”
In the days that followed the arson, politicians from across the political spectrum issued statements condemning the burning of the camp, while Lebanese residents of Bhanin offered their houses to the displaced Syrians.
“The problem that happened in the camp was an individual issue, not a problem in the area with Syrians and Lebanese like they are saying,” Bhanin Deputy Mayor Amer al-Bikai told L’Orient Today. “[The Lebanese residents] all showed solidarity and opened up their houses, told [the Syrians], ‘Come in and stay with us here and you’re welcome; our house is your house.’”
The refugees corroborated this.
“The Lebanese came and helped,” said one of the women picking through the remnants of the camp. “This person who burned the camp, shame on him. But one person doesn’t represent all the people. [Lebanese neighbors] took me with them in their car, and my children too, and told me, ‘What do you need, sister? We will help you.’”
Mohamad El Dheiby, a Lebanese resident who has been coordinating a group of Lebanese and Syrian volunteers responding to the needs of those displaced by the fire, said there was sympathy between the Lebanese and Syrians in the area, because “we’re living in the same conditions — we’re not rich, we’re farmers.”
The Syrians had been working on the farms around Minyeh for many years and had camps in the area before the war in Syria, he said. “We need them, and they need us, and we’re living here as one community.”
Meanwhile, donations flowed in from outside of Lebanon. A fundraising campaign by Molham Volunteering Team, an NGO founded by members of the Syrian diaspora, had raised more than $120,000 as of Tuesday.
Originally, the NGO had said the funds would go to rebuilding the camp, but as political issues appeared likely to prevent that, they instead said Sunday that the funds would pay for rent for the displaced families for a year, along with new household appliances.
‘Why didn’t it happen like this in my camp?’
The outpouring of support after the burning of Camp 009 stood in contrast to the more muted reaction after an incident in November in Bsharri, in which mobs of Lebanese men drove some 270 Syrian families out of town after a Syrian man shot and killed a local Lebanese man.
As in Bhanin, the incident stemmed from an individual dispute, but unlike the Bhanin incident, few political figures condemned the collective punishment. Efforts to help the displaced families, many of whom had also fled with only what they could carry, were mainly by sympathetic individuals, not by NGOs. Some of the families spent days sleeping on the streets outside the Tripoli office of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, before they were able to find shelter.
A month and a half later, the situation of many of them remains unstable. Some 35 Syrian families from Bsharri who found temporary shelter in a vacant building in Tripoli are now facing eviction again.
Developer Abdallah Harmouch told L’Orient Today that he had offered to let the families stay in the newly constructed building for a month, rent-free, as a gesture of goodwill, because “what happened [in Bsharri], no religion and no human being would accept it.”
But Harmouch said when he made the offer, he had assumed that UNHCR or some NGO would agree to pay for the Syrians to continue living there or would find them somewhere else to stay, neither of which has occurred.
In the meantime, he said, he is losing money on the building, to the displeasure of his business partner, and now wants the Syrians out by the end of the week.
“I’m not waiting for thanks, but no one helped me,” he said. “I went to the UN several times.”
Shadi Abu Ahmad, one of the Syrians staying in the building, has a pregnant wife and four children, including an 11-year-old daughter who has a severe bone and spinal condition. His 12-year-old son still wears a cast on his leg after it was broken in the attack that drove them out of Bsharri.
The family slept on the streets for a few days after fleeing to Tripoli, Abu Ahmad said, adding, “Maybe we’ll end up back on the street. We don’t know.”
Ahmad al-Balass, a Syrian living in Bhanin but not in Camp 009, who has been volunteering to help the camp residents in the aftermath of the fire, has found watching the aid pour in bittersweet. The camp where Balass lives also burned down two years ago — the result of a cooking accident, not arson.
Afterward, he said, UNHCR provided some kits to help with rebuilding, but no NGOs stepped in to help replace all the lost furniture, clothing and appliances as they have after the arson.
“Until now, there are people in my camp who are still in debt from rebuilding after the fire, and they can’t repay it,” he said. “At the time, with the dollar at LL1,500, it cost me $2,000 and I had to borrow to get everything.”
As he helped with the distribution outside the municipality building, Balass said, “I am seeing [the aid] in front of me and I am wondering, why didn’t it happen like this in my camp?”
Why the disparities?
Nasser Yassin, a professor of policy and planning at the American University of Beirut and the chair of the AUB4Refugees initiative, said the visceral nature of the images that were spread on social media of the burning camp in Bhanin likely contributed to the difference in response.
“Visually, I think it was so severe, so violent that people were reacting in a more supportive way toward the refugees,” he said.
And the political and sectarian dynamics in the Sunni area of Bhanin are different from those in Bsharri, a Christian town where the primarily Sunni refugees are perceived by some as a demographic threat.
Mohammad Hasan, director of the Access Center for Human Rights, a Syrian-run organization founded in Lebanon to monitor the conditions of Syrian refugees, said he thinks the Bhanin camp met with “broad popular solidarity” in the local community because “the Tripoli area has an environment close to the Syrian environment” with greater ties between the Lebanese and Syrian communities.
At the same time, Hasan said that the response in Bhanin compared to other crises highlighted “the lack of coordination among civil society organizations working with refugees.” While both local and international organizations provided substantial aid to Camp 009, he said, “other camps are waiting for $10 to buy heating materials.”
UNHCR spokesperson Khaled Kabbara told L’Orient Today that the agency’s ability to respond when it comes to shelter emergencies is limited because of Lebanon’s “no encampment” policy. The Lebanese government does not officially recognize the Syrians as refugees and has opposed the establishment of permanent settlements or official refugee camps.
Kabbara said in most cases it is up to the refugees to make arrangements for shelter themselves, and UNHCR only steps in afterward to provide aid.
“Our support when it comes to shelter, with the no encampment policy, focuses solely on when they find a location; we ensure that they have dignified living conditions in terms of access to safe water, sanitation facilities, or if they’re living in makeshift locations then they are provided with shelter kits,” he said, and in some cases, vulnerable households receive cash assistance.
Only in “extremely vulnerable cases … [when they] have no other means of support and they cannot find shelter themselves” does UNHCR directly provide temporary shelter, he said.
Yassin said the fact that small NGOs and community volunteers had led the response was not surprising.
“Even after the Beirut blast, those who were attentive and responsive just after the blast were grassroots groups, community groups — the big players came in later,” he said.
Political issues muddy the waters
Meanwhile, despite the outpouring of support, the long-term prospects for the former Camp 009 residents remain murky.
Most of the Syrians who spoke to L’Orient Today said they would prefer to rebuild the camp on the same site.
“We’re used to it here, to the people of the area, to the land,” Salah al-Mohammed said. He said he’s not afraid of a repeat of the violence.
“To the contrary, we remain like family [with the Lebanese],” he said. “The Lebanese from the area opened their hearts and houses to us.”
But despite the demonstrations of solidarity, a group of Lebanese residents protested Friday against rebuilding the camp. The landowner, Mahmoud Dounia, issued a statement saying that “to prevent the repetition of this painful incident,” he would not allow the camp to be rebuilt.
Bikai told L’Orient Today on Sunday that the Ministry of Interior had decided not to give permission for the camp to be rebuilt or for a new camp to be constructed. Ministry officials could not be reached for confirmation.
Instead, the deputy mayor said, the displaced families were being distributed among the existing camps in the area. Other families have been able to rent apartments or storefronts with the aid money that has arrived.
The political situation was muddied further after a delegation from the Syrian Embassy in Lebanon visited Bhanin and, according to Syrian state media, gave “financial aid” to some of the displaced families, to the outrage of many in the area, where there is strong support for the Future Movement, which opposes the Syrian regime.
Whatever the specifics of the local political situation, Dheiby, the Lebanese volunteer coordinator, said he sees the burning of the camp as the natural conclusion of a national political trend.
“It is an individual incident, but it turned into collective punishment,” he said. “It is dangerous, and we need to ask why this has happened.”
The reason, he believes, is “the hate speech that started to accelerate in the last two years in Lebanon, with the extreme-right political regime. … There’s a rise in hate speech in the last two years, and there’s more pressure for Syrian refugees to leave the country.”
Mariam, the former Camp 009 resident, said the burning of the camp had made her think about going back to Syria, although so far her husband doesn’t agree.
“I have five children,” she said. “I’m afraid for them if we stay here. It’s not a secure environment anymore.”