BAR ELIAS, Lebanon: Handwritten notices, sealed with red wax, dot the handles of shop shutters along the main commercial hub of Bar Elias, a stark sign of a recent crackdown by Lebanese authorities on Syrian-owned or -managed businesses in the Bekaa Valley.
“They came in and told me it was illegal for Syrians to have shops,” said Amar, a Syrian refugee who ran a T-shirt store in Bar Elias.
Without any warning, Lebanese security officials closed the shutter of his shop and tied the wax-sealed notice around the handle. They threatened him with arrest if he broke the seal, effectively preventing him from retrieving anything from inside.
Antoine Sleiman, the governor of the Bekaa Valley, confirmed that “hundreds” of Syrian-run businesses lacking proper permits had recently been closed across the region.
“To open a shop, you need the proper paperwork, you must pay taxes,” he told The Daily Star.
He denied that Syrians were being prohibited from owning businesses, saying it was legal for foreigners to own businesses “as long as it’s done according to the law and all the regulations of the state.”
But according to one Beirut-based lawyer, who asked to remain anonymous, it is almost impossible for Syrians to obtain the proper paperwork to open a business.
Former Labor Minister Charbel Nahhas admitted it had become more difficult for Syrians to obtain the proper permits due to the enormous influx but insisted it was “doable.”
In Bar Elias, however, many Syrians said their shops were closed despite having the proper paperwork.
“I arrived this morning and found my shop was closed,” said Omar Tamha. “I have my license inside.”
Taking out his phone, Tamha scrolled to a picture of freshly baked cakes. “There is $2,000 worth of cakes inside, and they’ll all rot in two days.”
Like many Syrians who want to open a store in Lebanon, Tamha had a Lebanese partner. The paperwork, he said, is in the Lebanese man’s name. “I did everything right, but they still closed me down.”
Syrian refugee Khaldoun also had a Lebanese partner to co-sign the paperwork for his small restaurant. But when the authorities came to close his restaurant down, Khaldoun’s partner wouldn’t help him acquire the proper permits.
“I’ve already paid six months’ rent,” said Khaldoun, as women removed the last of the equipment from the store.
“The authorities, they have the right to shut you down,” interjected a local Lebanese man who appeared on the scene.
“You shouldn’t be working here anyways,” he said in an accusatory tone, smoothing the collar of his “I Heart Bar Elias” shirt as he spoke.
It’s a sentiment that appears to be shared by locals in the area.
“They’re putting the Lebanese people out of work,” Ahmad said in a thick American accent, a relic of having worked in Detroit for decades.
“All the shops are Syrian,” he said, gesturing at the valley around him.
But it’s not only Syrians who have been caught up in the crackdown.
Yazin, a Palestinian butcher who was born and raised in Lebanon, said he had never had problems with the Lebanese authorities before.
“Security came in here a few days ago and inspected my meat. They closed down my cousin’s store,” he grunted. “We’re only facing pressure now because the Syrians are here.”
Security forces also came and demanded paperwork from Samir, a grizzled Palestinian man who has run a supermarket in Bar Elias for 20 years, threatening to close his place in the meantime.
“I told him I had bread and milk in the shop, things that will rot. So he only sealed one of the doors,” Samir explained, gesturing to a shuttered entrance on the main road.
Abdullah Kamel, a Palestinian activist in the region, said he had discussed the issue at a meeting with General Security officials in the Bekaa Valley:
“He told us that they [General Security] want to preserve and maintain security, especially because many shops have been opened in a disorganized way.”
Kamel said from now on, Palestinian business owners would be obliged to sign a contract saying they would only hire Lebanese workers.
Samir said Lebanese-born Palestinians had many advocates, and that he wasn’t worried about his store being closed down. But Syrian business owners are not so optimistic.
“I was receiving aid from the United Nations, but they cut my family from the list,” said Fayed Houla, a refugee who rents a small plot along the highway not far from the town of Masna to sell fresh fruits and ice cream from a homely lean-to.
Last week, however, a Lebanese official appeared at the shop and told Houla he had three days to register his business, or it would be closed down.
He can’t afford the registration fees, and he worries about what his five children will do if the stand is closed down. “I put $5,000 into this business,” he said, pointing to several industrial refrigerators and juice machines.
With the three-day deadline now up, he said the authorities could come at any time.
“They might come today,” he said with an anxious sigh. “Three people work here. Three people will be out of work if they close us down.” – Additional reporting by Mazen Sidahmed