JEZZINE, Lebanon: An unknown fate awaits around 30 families who fled war and suffering in their country only to find themselves unwanted guests in the southern Lebanese district of Jezzine.
The Jezzine municipality, a majority-Christian area, has told about 30 Syrian refugee families to leave their residences and the region by Thursday at the latest.
The municipality tried to justify its decision by saying that several refugee families were renting shops and illegally using them as residences.
The refugees have refused to leave and accuse the Jezzine municipal police of brutality.
Jezzine municipality issued a decision Sept. 25 asking dozens of refugees to leave by Oct. 2 because they had breached the terms of contract with building owners by turning commercial stores into residential buildings for local Syrian laborers and their families.
That deadline has passed and the municipality has yet to take forceful action to evict the families. At the behest of several international humanitarian organizations, Gov. Nicholas Abu Daher secured an extension of the notice until Thursday from the municipality.
Youssef Khillawi is one of the Syrian refugees currently residing with his family of five in a town shop. The family arrived seven months ago from Hama and have tried to keep a low profile, he said.
“We have been informed of the evacuation warnings, but we have rented this place from its owner and not from the Jezzine mayor. If they want us out they should secure us a replacement,” he said.
“Do they want us to live on the streets?” he asked.
The targeted refugees have joined together to ask local U.N. authorities to sort out the situation, Khillawi said.
“We will not leave these shops, and they have to negotiate with the mayor to solve the issue,” he said. “When the Lebanese fled to us in 2006 during the war with Israel, we evacuated our houses for them. We don’t want anything. We have rented these shops so that we won’t be in need from anyone.”
Ali Khillawi first came to work in Lebanon 10 years ago, long before the war in Syria broke out. He moved his family here recently and his children now attend a local school in Jezzine.
“They have to give us more time,” he said. “Where should we go?”
Around 1,200 refugees live in Jezzine, and the majority stay in zoned-residential housing. They have not been asked to leave, Mayor Walid al-Helou told The Daily Star.
“We didn’t warn these families to leave their houses. The problem is that the shops are being used for residential purposes while they are not equipped with the necessary sanitation and health setup for families, and that’s how problems start to become bigger and diseases start to spread.”
Helou blamed Syrian refugees for petty crime in the city, but said they have been tolerant of the guests in spite of this.
“Though a lot of Syrians have caused a lot of trouble like thefts and aggressions against residents, we have overlooked these incidents. We are not prejudiced,” he said. “We are applying the law, and we don’t want them to breach the law.”
Helou also rejected the idea that residents feared a demographic imbalance in the municipality, but said that those Syrians breaking the law must be held accountable.
He does not want to see the issue escalate, Helou told The Daily Star, adding that the decision was final and refugees had to be out by Thursday.
In mid-September, outrage at the presence of refugees caused residents of the Jezzine village of Labaa to stage a protest against a school that was rented out for the purpose of housing Syrian refugees.
During the protest, a banner was raised along the road leading to the school, reading: “The residents of the villages of Jezzine cling to their history, identity and coexistence.”
Ghaziya Khaled, who came from Idlib 18 months ago, said the municipality had the right to take the decision, but hoped they would reverse it.
“The municipality is treating us well, but they have to be kind and let us stay here,” she said. “There are about 30 families who live in shops, for which rent is $250 a month. We live in places like basements so that we won’t live on the street.”
Hussein Mansour, also from Idlib, arrived in Jezzine seven months ago. He said that the owners should not have rented the buildings to them in the first place if it was illegal.
“I have eight children and I work on construction sites. This is a humanitarian issue, where will we go? Do they want us to go back to Syria and die? Do they think that we are happy with this situation? It is a tragedy.”