18 septembre 2013

Beirut : In the footsteps of a Syrian refugee

The main problem when you’ve chosen one of the cheapest hotels in Beirut is that comfort isn’t the priority of the owner. The electricity shortage is a common thing; there is a single shower and restrooms for the whole story – in the same room so that the toilet paper is constantly wet – and the air-conditioning is fragile. But this Spartan way of life, softened by the pink and yellow Cinderella bedding, is counterbalanced by the opportunity to meet the prominent personalities who have become your room/floor mates. Contrary to you, they haven’t chosen this strange auberge espagnol where it smells good speaking Arabic, English or French at the same time. The first story of the Talal Hotel is full of Syrian refugees who have eventually fled the horror of the civil war between the supporters of Bashar al-Assad and the FSA (Free Syrian Army,ed.) rebels backed by some fundamentalist groups. According to the Lebanese minister of the Interior Marwan Charbel, more than 1.2 million refugees have already crossed the border. Since the war took their family, their home and their nation away, they don’t know what their future will be about.

Samer, 32, is one of them. He has accepted to tell his story. He wants to explain why he took so much time before leaving his country. The first time I met him, he was lying on a couch of the hotel ground floor. His eyes seemed full of despair. He was bare-chested – some scares on his shoulders gave some terrible ideas of what he could have lived in Syria – and was only wearing a Bermuda short and a pair of thongs.

 Here is Samer, smiling for the photo while a friend from Homs, Syria, cuts his hair.

In the evening, we have more time to discuss since we are eventually alone. He tells me he has come from Damascus a month ago. So far the capital of Syria remains faithful to al-Assad. He has chosen to rally Lebanon because it seems to be the easiest way out in such an emergency case. While his family is still in Damascus, Samer barely manages to survive in Beirut thanks to the savings he made when he was working in an insurance company. Then I suddenly understand that Damascus has become a lawless area. Of course, Samer has fled from the fighting chaos but not only. He confesses to me that he might have engaged himself in a trouble business with “some bad guys”. These men are now after him and there is the main reason for his presence in Lebanon. When I try to learn more about this, he suddenly swears that his English is too uncertain so that he cannot explain clearly his situation. Yet until then he seemed pretty fluent…

Even after a month in Beirut, it is still hard for Samer to find an employment in order to earn a living and avoid squandering his savings. There is nothing pleasing in this county for Samer compared to his dictatorial – but peaceful – native Syria. Even if he finally finds a job, Samer claims that the wages he would earn (“from $700 to $1000”) won’t be enough to live in Beirut. The Lebanese capital is famous for being one of the most expensive cities in the Middle East. A 2010 survey by the business consultancy Cushman and Wakefield has ranked the city as one of the most high-priced city among ten Arab metropolises regarding rents. The cost of living has skyrocketed since the end of the civil war (1975-1990) because of the wealthy Lebanese diaspora who got involved in real estate rebuilding. To these difficulties is added the tensed relationship between the two rival brothers: Lebanon and Syria. Proudly, Samer reminds me that “Syria and Lebanon used to belong to Syria; it was only a region: Mount Lebanon” before both countries’ independence (namely in 1943 and 1946). But the 20th century rivalries, that the Lebanese people still resent, have been brought back by the new refugee flow. “The Lebanese people hate the Syrians” maintains Samer. According to him, that’s why he couldn’t find work.

Unemployed, the days seem endless for Samer and his countrymen. Without any goal, he wanders back and forth in the stories of the hotel. His only certainty is that he can’t stay infinitely in Lebanon. Sooner or later, he would have to flee this country where he has no ties. As many Syrians, Samer’s hope is to go abroad. As an example, he introduced me to his roommate who is waiting for a visa for Dubai. Samed would prefer Europe. He tells me that three of his friends managed to obtain asylum in Sweden where everything was made to integrate them. To reach it, they had to pay $7000 for a fake passport and the help of smugglers through Turkey and the Balkans. Samer can’t afford it right now and such an amount of cash won’t grow on a cedar.

Every night, the young Syrian waits for sunset before hanging out with his fellows in the merry neighborhood of Hamra. They never forget to take the newcomers with them like this young man coming one night from Aleppo. He’ll take the flight for the UAE (United Arab Emirates, ed.) the next morning. In adversity, common pain seems to strengthen the solidarity of the exiled Syrian community. Samer and his companions in misfortune often come back late at the hotel and they talk for hours in the hotel living room. When we speak again of the war, Samer keeps going: “Bashar is a criminal, a terrorist. Are you aware of that in France?” At the same time, his neighbor – from Syria too – rages playing Counter Strike on his laptop. War has its reasons that reason knows nothing of…

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