KFAR ZABAD, Lebanon: Ghiwa, a young Lebanese resident of Kfar Zabad, says she’s tired of the sniggers and whistles she hears from Syrian refugees as she walks through her town. She would never consider dating a Syrian boy.
Bahaa, who was forced to abandon his degree in civil engineering last year when he fled Syria for Kfar Zabad in the Bekaa Valley, says he’s tired of Lebanese people looking down at him and his compatriots.
A new community center in Kfar Zabad, however, is trying to mend relations between young Syrians and Lebanese in the area by fostering dialogue between the two communities.
Kfar Zabad, located east of Zahle at the base of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, used to have 13,000 residents. Since 2011, more than 5,500 Syrian refugees have settled in the small agricultural town.
“We’ve noticed that there are a lot of issues between the groups,” said Anita Delhas-Van Dyke of international non-governmental organization World Vision, who funded and equipped the community center along with UNESCO.
Young Syrians in the region often complain of discrimination, bullying and teasing, she said, while disenfranchised Lebanese youths and their families grumble about the increasing burden of hosting so many unknown faces in their close-knit town.
“Refugees came into our town in large numbers,” said Firas, a Lebanese man who is studying business at the nearby Lebanese International University.
“But we don’t know anything about them.”
For Ghiwa, however, cultural differences between the two populations are the biggest point of friction in Kfar Zabad.
“We have a big problem integrating with them because they have different ideas,” she said, sweeping her long black hair away from her face. “They’re more conservative.”
Ghiwa said she was often the object of unwanted sexual advances when she passed groups of young Syrian men in her village, being subjected to mutterings such as “hey beautiful” on a regular basis.
But Bahaa, who now teaches math at a local school, said that Lebanese tend to group all Syrians together: “Whoever you are, you’re just a Syrian to them, whether you were a doctor or an engineer [in Syria].”
Bahaa said he was most frustrated by the feeling that Lebanese tend to assume that Syrians were unsophisticated. “I know the reputation of Syrians here. It’s a bad one,” he sighed. “So as a Syrian, I need to prove myself.”
Both Ghiwa and Bahaa are open to attending future gatherings at the community center, inaugurated Tuesday, where they will be able to air such feelings to each other.
The community center occupies the first floor of the Kfar Zabad municipality building and boasts a library, several computers and a wall-mounted flat-screen TV. It will be open eight hours a day to Syrians and residents of local villages, free of charge.
Various activities and joint Syrian-Lebanese youth projects will be held at the site, Delhas-Van Dyke said.
“Initially, we will be focusing on peace-building, reconciliation and conflict sensitivity,” said Leon Chammah, an operations director at World Vision.
The project is indicative of the aid agencies’ general shift away from just immediate life-saving aid toward including longer-term projects aimed at helping Syrian refugees and Lebanese host communities reconcile their differences, Delhas-Van Dyke said.
“In the beginning, we thought this [refugee crisis] was going to be a couple of months, and then it would be over. But now we’re in the fourth year and there’s no end in sight,” she said. “We’re thinking about three- to five-year plans.”
For now, young people living in and around Kfar Zabad say the shared space will serve the community as a petri dish for cultural and interpersonal mingling.
“It will be a place for us to get to know them, and for them to get to know us,” Ghiwa said.
“I want to show people that I’m educated and that I can relate to all different people,” Bahaa added.
“I just want to be closer to them, to these refugees, and get to know how they think, how they do things,” Firas concluded.