Middle East

Syria’s political divides reflected among Lebanon’s refugee community

Syrian families wait their turn to register at the UNHCR center in the northern city of Tripoli, Lebanon, Wednesday, March. 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

TYRE, Lebanon: Abu Yasser is nervous, twitchy and unwilling to be photographed. He fled Syria, but not for the reasons commonly cited by Syrian refugees.

Unlike many refugees who blame government shelling for forcing them out, Abu Yasser says he left Homs because he feared attacks from rebel groups.

“We left because we didn’t feel safe. The rebels were knocking on doors and asking for money. If they didn’t get what they wanted, they would raid your home. People were kidnapped too,” he says. “There were strange people arriving in town, I didn’t recognize them and their accents were different.”

Abu Yasser, who appears to be in his mid-50s, is a staunch supporter of embattled President Bashar Assad, saying that had his two sons been old enough he would have left them in Homs to fight for the regime.

The strategic central city has been the scene of some of the most protracted, bitter battles of the two-year conflict, with residents under siege in both government- and rebel-held neighborhoods. A report by the U.N. into militia groups released Monday said that rebels in Homs had based themselves in densely populated areas.

As the civil war increasingly fractures Syrian communities along political and sectarian lines, those divisions are being mirrored in the political geography of Lebanon. As such, Abu Yasser’s family fled not to the expansive plains of the Bekaa Valley or the northern hub of Tripoli – areas where the vast majority of the refugees are congregated – but to the Hezbollah heartlands of Tyre.

Hezbollah has publically thrown its weight behind the Assad regime and accusations abound that the group’s fighters have crossed the border to fight alongside regime troops.

But while Hezbollah’s support base is predominantly Shiite, Abu Yasser’s family are Sunni.

“We feel harmony and peace with the Shiite community here. We feel safe in Tyre, more than in other areas,” he says.

“I didn’t want to go to the Bekaa,” Mohammad, a fellow pro-Assad refugee from Aleppo says.

“I have relatives in Tripoli, but I couldn’t go there; the anti-Bashar sentiment is very strong.”

Both men are wary of registering with the U.N. refugee agency, fearing discrimination from those who have backed the rebels.

“I was initially wary of registering because I was with the regime, I felt we might be ignored. But I have five children, what other choice did I have?” Mohammad says.

UNHCR’s spokesperson Dana Sleiman says that while the organization is not aware of Syrians reluctant to register on political grounds, she accepts that “generally speaking, refugees flee to areas where they feel most comfortable politically.”

But, she adds, “the main reasons people go south are economic, it is an area where there is high demand for labor. People feel there are greater chances of jobs there, particularly in construction.”

Mohammad and Abu Yasser’s families have been fortunate to this extent. Their tarpaulin tents, among a cluster of 50 or so, extend off a field where the refugees work growing tomatoes and cucumbers. Each worker, including children as young as 10, can earn between LL6,000 and LL8,000 an hour – just enough to keep the power on in their tents for several hours.

Sheikh Mohammad Abu Zaid, who sits on a board that manages 26 local NGOs in south Lebanon, agrees that job prospects are a major factor for those fleeing south, particularly as some families had experience working seasonal labor in the south before the Syrian civil war began.

Abu Zaid rejects, however, the claim that refugees came south for political reasons.

“There are plenty of pro-Assad groups in the Bekaa, Hezbollah being the most obvious. If families are worried about discrimination, why not stay there? They are here [in the south] because the Bekaa is full.

“I have met Palestinian-Syrians and pro-regime families who claim they are receiving less services from aid groups, but this is clearly not true. Nobody is being discriminated against.”

Nonetheless, there are indications that refugees’ decisions on where to live are a reflection of the sectarian landscape of Lebanon, with Christian refugees congregating in the sect’s enclaves of Zahle, Jounieh and Beirut.

“Tensions arise because Christians are widely perceived as being pro-regime,” a humanitarian official who works closely with Christian refugee communities told The Daily Star. “That tension is carried to Lebanon, leaving Christians reluctant to register with the UNHCR, fearing that if the information is leaked, their families at home may be targeted by Sunni groups.” He was unwilling to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

“People are bringing their fears and anxieties across the border.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2013, on page 8.

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