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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

In Lebanon, Refugees and Women Among the Country’s Most Vulnerable

Lebanon Refugees and Women
A woman stands by a window in a Beirut suburb. PATRICK BAZ / ABAAD /AFP

Dana Hourany

The bodies of four missing women were discovered in the southern town of Ansar last week, sending shockwaves throughout Lebanon.

Basma Abbas, the divorced wife of Ansar’s mokhtar (local official responsible for records), and her three daughters Manal (16), Tala (20), and Rima (22), had been missing for 25 days and were last seen with H.G. Fayyad (36). The latter admitted to kidnapping the family and murdering them in a cave before burying them in a citrus orchard between the towns of Ansar and Al-Zararia with the help of an accomplice.

Through his close relationship with Tala, Fayyad was alleged to have built a kinship with the family, which he used to lure the victims to their deaths. Although the investigation into the events and motives surrounding the tragedy is still underway, sources claim that the criminals murdered the victims with a rifle and then covered their bodies with stones, dirt, and concrete. Fayyad had been previously investigated by Judge Ghada Abu Alwan, a public prosecutor in the south, when the women went missing, but was eventually released “for lack of proof,” according to court sources.

In that same week, two additional crimes against women were reported in Akkar, north Lebanon; a man reportedly murdered his brother’s wife – using a hunting rifle, and a soldier, who has now disappeared, had too allegedly murdered his wife in front of their children. These two, however, were rather inconspicuous, compared to the Ansar tragedy that had the public eye transfixed.

Problems with the discourse

In the wake of the Ansar crime, some commentators blamed the mother for her position as a divorcee, which is typically viewed as “shameful” by conservatives in Lebanon; some local clerics even said that the crime was the product of “familial disintegration.”

The capture of the accomplice, Hassan Al-Ghanaj, who was lured from Syrian territory and handed to the Lebanese authorities, was the most recent step in the inquiry.

Images of the young man bleeding after being severely beaten circulated online and were celebrated by people who highlighted the accomplice’s Syrian nationality. This prejudiced rhetoric indicated that all Syrians were to blame for the spike in crime rate.

“It seems that Syrians are always implicated in crimes [in Lebanon] … Lebanese people should know better than to keep them in their country…” one Twitter user wrote, for example.

Experts and activists, however, told Fanack that the main culprits in reinforcing this rhetoric are politicians, who scapegoat Syrians and other refugees for political gains.

The reality of the matter

Lebanon is host to 1.5 million Syrian refugees with the majority (39%) residing in the Bekaa region. Field operator with Sawa – refugee development and aid NGO – Omar Abdallah, told Fanack that racist verbiage against Syrian refugees has been less prominent in the last five years, especially in the Bekaa, where Abdallah works.

“Generally speaking, this area [Bekaa] has been very welcoming to the refugees. Lebanese and Syrians also share financial interests through businesses and trade, so there’s a lot of empathy for refugees here,” Abdallah said.

Jamila Khodor, a political activist working with refugees, explained that Lebanon’s economic crisis, characterized by the depreciation of the local currency and maximized poverty rates, built a bridge of common economic struggles that has generated sympathy from both ends.

“Syrian and Lebanese nationals alike, feel the pressure of the financial collapse. The Lebanese are also too preoccupied with survival necessities to focus on expelling refugees from their territories,” she told Fanack.

A necessary fact to keep in mind for the Lebanese, she adds, is that refugees are discontent with their current situation in Lebanon, with many wishing to return to Syria or be resettled elsewhere.

In addition, she blames some local media outlets for reinforcing negative narratives, through their emphasis on the accomplice’s nationality: “headlining his nationality only perpetuates a stereotypical image that all refugees are criminals,” she said.

Past conflicts and their solutions

Abdallah, a Syrian national himself, was the target of such generalizations, where people would differentiate him from his peers, by saying he “was not like the rest.” Meaning, he does not fit the downtrodden refugee stereotype.

An incident that occurred in the northern town of Bsharre, two years ago, reflected the harmful repercussions of such generalizations. A day after a Syrian citizen allegedly shot dead a local man in a personal dispute, locals called on authorities to evict all Syrians from the area. Thus, the actions of one became the responsibility of the many.

However, Abdallah, alongside other NGOs, have since established a large network of connections that monitor these conflicts and quell the fires that such narratives may fuel before they develop into real-life altercations.

Because Bsharre is the hometown of Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a political organization known for its anti-refugee and anti-Assad stances, Abdallah approached a member of the party and reached an agreement to refrain from using anti-Syrian rhetoric on social media, for example.

The most recent instance of municipal discrimination occurred during the first round of COVID lockdowns, when eight municipalities imposed strict curfews in early March, limiting refugee movement to about eight hours per day.

Both Khodor and Abdallah agree that this type of racism has been on the decline; one, because of the awareness campaigns done by activists and NGO programs that allow both nationalities to mix and work together. Two, because of the presence of social media observers that, according to Abdallah, monitor problematic content that could trigger outrage.

However, Abdallah stresses that radical change is only possible with a shift in political discourse and legislation.

Politics at fault

In 2019, Lebanon’s Foreign Minister, Gebran Bassil, asked for international help to send refugees back to Syria. In previous years, he had stood against citizenship rights for children born out of the union of a Lebanese woman and a Syrian or Palestinian man.

Abdallah believes these speeches used Syrians as pawns to score the highest amount of donations from foreign aid. However, that did not undermine their psychological impact.

“We feel tyrannized everywhere we go. In Lebanon, we don’t have any rights, the stereotypes don’t resemble us and no politician cares about us,” Abdallah said.

He went on to say that, regardless of any hate speech spreading online or offline, Syrians have the foresight to analyze the issue logically and see that this racism does not reflect the reality of all Lebanese people; rather, it reflects the reality of a few political groups seeking to score political points.

Despite the fact that the Lebanese crisis has raised public awareness and sympathy, women and refugees remain two of the most vulnerable groups in terms of rights and judicial protection. Khodor, who also works with Fe-Male, a feminist organization, adds that because men were traditionally positioned as the family’s primary breadwinners, their struggle to make ends meet in difficult economic times has made women obvious targets for their anger.

“Traditionally, women are perceived as fragile properties of men of the family so men don’t perceive them as worthy of equal treatment. Additionally, the authorities fall short on implementing laws that protect women, giving men more power,” Khodor said.

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