Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Memories of Its Own Civil War Dampen Lebanon's Desire to Help Syrian Refugees

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Memories of Its Own Civil War Dampen Lebanon's Desire to Help Syrian Refugees

Article excerpt

References to the Onion Factory, an abandoned farm once used by Syrian intelligence agents as an interrogation center and prison for Lebanese detainees, still send a shudder through residents of this Sunni town.

But today, nearly eight years after Syrian President Bashar al- Assad withdrew his army from Lebanon, the Onion Factory has become home to a new generation of Assad regime victims an extended family of about 60 Syrian refugees who have fled the bloody conflict roiling Syria to find desperate sanctuary in makeshift huts around the grim former prison.

Our situation here is miserable. We have no food, no diesel for heating, nothing, says Yasser Hadaji, who arrived in Majdal Anjar with his family six weeks ago, having fled from Raqqa, a town in northern Syria.

Mr. Hadaji and his extended family are among an estimated 200,000 Syrians who have fled their homes to seek shelter in Lebanon as refugees, stirring sectarian concerns in a country that is deeply divided over the war raging in Syria and placing a massive burden on the cash-strapped Lebanese government.

Lebanon has so far resisted building camps like those constructed in Jordan and Turkey. The notion of refugee camps has a particular political and sectarian undertone here because of the sizable Palestinian refugee population that has lived in a dozen slumlike camps throughout the country since 1948. Many Lebanese recall that the presence of armed Palestinian factions in Lebanon was a contributing factor to the 1975-90 civil war.

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Furthermore, there has been resistance for decades, particularly among Christians, against allowing the mainly Sunni Palestinian refugees to assimilate into Lebanese society in case it upsets the delicate sectarian balance in the country. That is why, out of all the Arab nations hosting Palestinians, those in Lebanon live in the worst conditions and have the least civil rights.

Sunni 'military bases'?

In the absence of camps, most Syrian refugees are instead staying with relatives and friends, renting accommodation if they have the funds, squatting in abandoned buildings, or living in tents and huts.

Unlike Turkey and Jordan, two other countries neighboring Syria that have absorbed refugees, Lebanon is a tiny nation of some four million people which lacks the resources to host such a large refugee population. Two days ago, Lebanon appealed to the Arab League for $180 million in aid to cater to the needs of the refugees, according to a plan drawn up by the government two weeks ago. The Arab League agreed to dispatch a fact-finding team to assess the status of the refugees.

The situation has become worrisome and stressful on a large scale, especially as the governments plan was designed based on the presence of 200,000 refugees while the number, I think, has surpassed 200,000, Wael Abu Faour, Lebanese minister for social affairs, told the meeting. He said that the $180 million would be used to provide health, social, and education services, including the enrollment of 30,000 Syrian children in public schools.

Gibran Bassil, the energy minister and a member of the mainly Christian Free Patriotic Movement, has been an outspoken critic of establishing refugee camps for Syrians, warning that they could become military bases for the armed Syrian opposition. …

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