Refugees in Lebanon’s capital were already up against it. However, the massive explosion in August has made their tragedy even starker, writes Richard Spencer
It was Lebanon’s worst disaster in a year of disasters. But the port explosion that damaged much of east Beirut in August has turned out to be an especially cruel blow for Syrians in the area, more than 40 of whom were killed, at least 23 of them registered refugees, according to the United Nations.
Among them was Rawan Misto, 20, a Syrian Kurd who was a waitress at a fashionable cocktail bar in the city. There were also port workers and casual labourers such as Abdel Qader Balusso, 43, from Aleppo, and children, like Jude Ahmed Staifi, 13, who died in the Karantina neighbourhood with her mother Khaldiya and sister, Latifa, 24.
Aid agencies fear that the estimated 200,000 Syrians eking out a miserable existence in Beirut will sink still further into poverty and despair as Lebanon grapples with the difficulties in rebuilding the lives even of its own citizens.
“I can’t see any future for me here,” said Selma Khalifeh, 14, originally from the southern Syrian city of Deraa. She and her family live near what is left of the port, in the district of Bourj Hammoud, and the blast, for them, was the last straw in a year in which the country’s economy collapsed and the coronavirus lockdowns brought life to a virtual standstill. That is true for Lebanese too, but so many more Syrians were already living on the breadline.
Selma, like children the world over, is having to study from home until schools reopen, but unlike most Lebanese families, her family is unable to afford a computer. “Online study” means sharing one cheap smartphone with her brother and sister.
Even when schools do reopen, her father, Assad Khalifeh, said, the children will not be able to attend, as the family can no longer afford the bus fare. He lost his job pouring concrete on building sites, and the family now survive on the money earned by her 16-old-brother at a takeaway snack bar. His wage of 50,000 Lebanese pounds a week used to be worth £25; a paltry sum even before the blast. Today, with the currency collapsing in line with the economy it is worth only about £5.
Selma was physically uninjured by the blast, but it has triggered traumatic memories of the early years of her life, when Deraa was bombed by President Assad’s military. “It was like I was back in Syria, only this was much scarier,” she said. Her weight has dropped by more than two stone, about 14kg, in the two months since, her mother said.
Families like hers are receiving food aid from a local church — Bourj Hammoud is a mixed but largely Christian neighbourhood — and Selma herself receives psychological support and some extra education from Care International, a charity.
Dalal Harb, a spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Beirut, outlined the scale of the problem. “The proportion of refugees living under the extreme poverty line jumped from 55 per cent to over 75 per cent today,” she said.
Two months on from the explosion, which killed almost 200 people, including in Beirut’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, some parts of the city are slowly rebuilding. A striking number of bars and restaurants in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, the most fashionable areas for nightlife, have used online crowdfunding to raise money for new windows and doors, and to keep paying staff salaries. Heritage-related charities are moving in to help to restore some of the area’s fine Ottoman-era architecture, but many other buildings remain in ruins, with the owners of ordinary apartment blocks lacking the hard currency necessary to rebuild in the economic crisis. Many fear that whole streets will be simply abandoned, as some were after the civil war, and left to crumble.
For Syrians, the crisis has profoundly altered their relationship with their new home. Of the estimated 1.5 million Syrians in Lebanon, more than 870,000 are registered as refugees. Many others were already working in Lebanon, a much richer country even before the Syrian war, and some refugees initially found good jobs.
Silva Abdo, 16, a Kurd from northern Syria, was educated thanks to a Lebanese government programme offering support for refugee schools, while her mother, Fatima, managed to get a job as a seamstress in a clothes factory, earning the equivalent of £1,200 a month.
Now the situation is reversed. When the crash happened, most employers made Syrians redundant before locals, and Fatima now lives on piecework. Silva, however, began volunteering with a relief project, where she works now in the absence of school. But she is trapped between two worlds: in Lebanon, with her mother, and in Syria, where her father is still stuck, working in a factory in the disputed town of Manbij, which offers even less of a future than Beirut.
The UNHCR says it is having to help Lebanese too, just to ensure they can continue to host a refugee population almost a quarter of the size of their own; the largest percentage of any country in the world. “The most important challenge for refugees at the moment boils down to survival,” Ms Harb said. “They have reached a level of vulnerability they had never reached before.”