Saturday 21 January 2017

Lebanon faces new struggle – 1.2 million Syrian refugees

Social tensions rise as slain Lebanese soldier is buried

Published 12/12/2015 | 02:30

Relatives mourn at the funeral of Lebanese soldier Mohammad Hamieh, who was killed in captivity by Syria’s al-Nusra Front
Relatives mourn at the funeral of Lebanese soldier Mohammad Hamieh, who was killed in captivity by Syria’s al-Nusra Front
Refugee children play tug of war at at an informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Refugee children play at an informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Refugee children play football at at an informal settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.
Unicef goodwill ambassador Anne Doyle receives a gift from Ali (9), and right, having fun in a makeshift classroom

A sustained burst of machine gun fire rang out on the streets of Baalbek, near Lebanon's border with war-torn Syria.

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"Don't worry. It's a funeral… We're used to that so bear with us," said peace activist Assem Chreif. The gunfire into the air came as hundreds gathered to mourn the loss of Mohammad Hamieh, a Lebanese soldier who was kidnapped by the al-Qaida-lined al-Nusra Front last year.

The terror group executed him and handed over his body on December 1, along with 16 Lebanese troops who were returned alive as part of a prisoner swap.

Lebanon - itself no stranger to bitter civil war and sectarian strife - has not escaped unscathed from the chaos happening just over its border to the east. Just last month, two Isil suicide bombers slaughtered more than 40 people on the streets of Beirut the day before the Paris terror attacks, which got considerably more coverage in the west.

Assem concedes his group, Lebanese Organisation for Studies and Training (Lost), faces an uphill battle to encourage peace in a country all too used to war and struggling to cope with 1.2 million refugees.

"Definitely the Lebanese won't be very conducive to conflict resolution with the Syrians [today]," he says, referring to the funeral in town.

"It creates this sense of rage, of anger that this kid - our kid - was killed in Syria … and we are catering for them [Syrian refugees] here."

He said his organisation's job is to show that the refugees are human and that "these people have nothing to do with what's going on in Syria".

Lost - an agency supported by Unicef - was founded with the aim of encouraging sustainable development in Lebanon but its role has changed after a series of crises in the tiny Arab state.

Tensions have been rising since the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

In 2006, there was a war between Lebanese political party and paramilitary group Hezbollah and Israel.

The Syrian nightmare began in 2011, sending waves of refugees over the mountains that mark the two countries' borders.

"With the sequence of wars coming to Lebanon we started to get into other sectors like social cohesion, peace building and conflict resolution," said Assem, who has visited Northern Ireland to learn from the peace process there.

The current crisis is perhaps the biggest challenge Lost has faced. The incoming Syrian refugees compete with impoverished locals for work and have put pressure on the state's creaking infrastructure.

The newcomers have also added to the existing tensions in the delicate sectarian balance in Lebanon between Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as the sizeable Christian community.

"We have this tension between the hosting community and the refugees … we as Lebanese started to perceive any Syrian as a potential terrorist … as blunt as it is and as vulgar as it is.

"And on the other hand the Syrians see us as potential racists.

"We're trying to create social cohesion from a grassroots level… to encourage tolerance, acceptance of the other, stuff like this," Assem said.

Despite the difficulty of integrating such a massive influx of refugees, Assem is optimistic and passionate about his work.

"At their first encounter the Syrians and the Lebanese freak out," Assem explained, but in week three or four "you can sense a change in behaviour", he added.

Irish Independent

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