Syrians in Lebanon setting up shop
When the first Syrian refugees poured across the borders two years ago, most thought it would only be for a short – or at least temporary – stay. They lived on their savings, stayed in hotels or with friends, and waited for the situation back home to improve.
Today, as the violence in Syria continues with no end in sight, some are taking a more long-term, perhaps realistic, view of their new home of Lebanon, taking out yearlong leases on shops – something that never occurred to them at the beginning of the conflict.
“Maybe I’ll go back in 10 years,” says Wael Masri, who arrived in Baalbek from Zabadani, a Syrian town just across the border, a year ago. In February he signed a yearlong rental contract and opened a falafel shop, his same line of work back in Syria. “For the first nine months I didn’t do anything. But after five or six months, I realized I wasn’t going back anytime soon.”
Masri’s story is like many others in Baalbek and across Lebanon, where Syrian refugees are gradually coming to terms with the fact that their stay has become long term – and possibly permanent. Those who could find regular work, schooling for their children and accommodation have done so.
Meanwhile, some Lebanese have complained of unfair competition and overcrowding, responding by charging Syrians high rent, boycotting their stores and in some cases passing legal measures against them.
For example in March, complaining of unfair competition, Lebanon’s taxi drivers’ union ordered Syrian drivers to stop working without business licenses or otherwise incur a LL150,000 fee under a 2-year-old law that is now being enforced more tightly.
This led many Syrian taxi drivers to change their routes so they could continue working without the required paperwork, including ID papers that many Syrians in Lebanon don’t have.
In Baalbek, longtime butcher Moussa el-Cheyah says his business has dropped by 60 percent since last year, which he attributes to the increasing numbers of Syrian merchants in the city of around 150,000 that already struggles with poverty.
“The new Syrian shops only helped the landlords who are now charging them higher rent. But they really hurt local businesses,” he says.
While some Lebanese are concerned about Syrians opening up shop – and possibly putting down roots – Jad Chaaban, assistant professor of economics at the American University of Beirut, thinks they could have a positive impact on some areas in need of an economic boost, such as the northern town of Akkar, which he says is benefiting from the influx of refugees.
“I don’t see their presence as negative,” he says. “If they bring their families and they want to work, it means they feel at home here. ... Having a chauvinistic attitude is detrimental. When the war is over, they won’t forget who helped them and who didn’t.”
Despite often feeling unwelcome in their host country, most Syrians in Lebanon believe they have no other choice than to wait out their country’s violence from across the border – and make the most of their indefinite stay.
“After two months, I knew I’d be here a long time,” says Ibrahim Ghanem, who runs a second-hand clothing store in Baalbek’s Rifa.
For him, opening a business was the best option in an increasingly tough job market, particularly for Syrians. “The Lebanese look down on Syrian refugees. They think of us as second-class citizens. They’re openly sectarian, and they think all refugees are Sunni and against the regime.”
Bassam Shaer, a butcher from Homs, opened his meat shop four months ago after having spent nearly a year out of work. Unlike some of his neighbors he is adamant that he will return to Syria – once things settle down.
Mohammad Radwan Chatoura, a baker who runs a nearby mankoushe shop and was Shaer’s neighbor in Homs and now in Baalbek, wants to go back to Syria as soon as possible – although he has no idea when that might be.
Samir, giving only his first name, says that with his home destroyed in Syria and the fact that he entered Lebanon illegally, he’s only thinking about his future in Lebanon. “I’m not happy here, but there’s nothing to return to in Syria.”
Similarly, for Mohammad Saleh, a lifelong carpenter who fled Zabadani eight months ago, there’s no home or business to return to in Syria.
“I knew I’d stay here as soon as I left Syria,” says Saleh, whose mother is Lebanese.
He is now staying at his maternal grandfather’s house in Baalbek. “Rockets destroyed our house, and now it’s not livable.”
Without hesitation he says, “I will settle here.” Now working for a local Lebanese carpenter, he plans on starting his own business in Baalbek as soon as he can save enough money.