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Missing Christmas cheer in impoverished Nabaa
A boy rides a bicycle in a street in Nabaa, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
A boy rides a bicycle in a street in Nabaa, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (The Daily Star/Hasan Shaaban)
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NABAA, Lebanon: Christmas offers little respite for the many Christians living in the crowded Beirut suburb of Nabaa, an impoverished area which has become more so since Syrian refugees began settling here.

“This holiday is now only for the rich,” Hovig Bashayan says as he stands inside his shoe store.

“There is so much misfortune, so much poverty here.”

The narrow streets and decrepit buildings of Nabaa are in themselves an indication of ever-encroaching poverty in the suburb, which had once boasted a mix of ethnicities and religions, including Lebanese, Armenians, Kurds and Syrians hailing from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds.

But coexistence here is broken now, as many Christians in the area have grown wary of the newest Syrian arrivals, a fairly large number of whom can be seen walking along Nabaa’s streets. Residents have also grown distrustful of strangers.

A faint holiday-themed jingle resonates throughout the Nabaa souk where cars drive through narrow roads lined with shops that date back decades. Owners like Bashayan sit outside on stools, basking in the winter sun, desperately waiting for customers. His Christmas decorations offer a faint reminder that it is, after all, the holiday season.

Despite his hard luck, Bashayan is still able to maintain a smile and cheerful eyes.

Having lived in the area all of his life, he tells The Daily Star that he has noticed a decline in the number of Christians living in the neighborhood.

“There are fewer Christians in Nabaa now,” he says, adding that with the rising level of poverty, parents find themselves unable to buy their children new clothes for the holidays, not to mention food for a traditional Christmas dinner.

“When is a person truly happy? When he sees that his neighbor is getting by financially. How are we to celebrate Christmas if our neighbors are unable to do so?”

According to Bashayan, there are numerous nonprofit and charity organizations that give aid to the families, especially the children.

But the aid is still not enough to keep the families going, especially during the holiday season.

A concern for Lebanese in the area is the inability to keep their businesses running or to find decent work.

Many Syrian refugees work in temporary, low-paying jobs for salaries below what Lebanese would demand. This has become a perennial source of anger among host communities across the country.

There are now over 830,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but the actual number of Syrians in Lebanon is estimated to be much higher. Some enterprising Syrians have managed to open up their own businesses and shops, also sparking intense competition with Lebanese business owners.

Such is the case of a young Lebanese store owner, who asks to remain anonymous.

“We are suffocating,” he says, swearing angrily. “Everybody here is Syrian now.”

Some refugees have taken to bartering their U.N. aid – such as blankets or food – for money, says the business owner, who also claims his was one of the few remaining Christian-owned businesses in the area.

“There is no Christmas, no such thing called Christmas anymore,” the young man adds.

Like Bashayan, he says the striking level of poverty and what some call an “exodus” of Christians from the area have taken Christmas away.

The business owner says livelihoods in the neighborhood are at risk, and the holidays are going to be as ordinary as any other day.

A few stores away in Nabaa’s souk, Syrian refugee Ani expresses the very same concerns as her Lebanese counterparts. Hailing from Aleppo, this Syrian Armenian, who has been living in Nabaa for almost a year and works in a call center, harbors little hope of celebrating a happy Christmas this year.

“There is no money, there is no happiness,” she says. “The situation here is not good.”

Though reluctant to speak to journalists, Ani manages to say that while she will celebrate Christmas with her family, she finds no solace in rejoicing anywhere that is away from her home in Syria.

Across the street, Zohrab Terzian, owner of a drapery shop, says Nabaa’s troubles have been simmering for years. They cannot blame the neighborhood’s poverty on the refugees, he says.

“Problems are growing year after year,” he says, adding that the area had been abandoned by the state long ago.

On Christmas Day some 10 years ago, the souks would have been bustling with activity, attracting residents from far beyond Nabaa, he says. But things are different now.

Like other Nabaa inhabitants interviewed by The Daily Star, Terzian reiterates that Christians have been abandoning the area for some time, leaving those who choose to remain with little holiday cheer and no motivation to celebrate the Christian holiday.

“They [refugees] are growing in number, and we are becoming fewer,” he says solemnly. His friend nearby nods in agreement.

Terzian has owned his drapery shop since 1981 and says he grew up in Nabaa, and Christmas has brought no cheer this year to the suburb he once called home.

There’s no better evidence for that, Terzian says, than during Christmas Mass, where the range of poor to poorest is most striking.

“There is no more place for us here,” he says. “Day after day, this place is regressing.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 24, 2013, on page 4.
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