Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Lebanon’s Kurds: Attempts for Integration Without Constitutional Recognition

Lebanon’s Kurds suffer marginalization and hide their ethnicity to avoid discrimination, despite being in the country for thousands of years.

Lebanon’s Kurds
Lebanese-Kurds take part in a demonstration in front of the US embassy in Aoukar, north of Beirut, against the ongoing Turkish offensive in Afrin on February 5, 2018. JOSEPH EID / AFP

Yousef Sharqawi


In Lebanon, Kurds suffer marginalisation and treatment as second-class citizens. Despite being in the country for thousands of years, some Kurds are forced to hide their ethnicity to avoid discrimination in Lebanese society.

The denial of Kurdish constitutional representation results from political, social and sectarian problems in Lebanon. Ethnic and sectarian divisions are deeply entrenched in the country’s social structure. Unfortunately, this system has inadvertently empowered certain groups while marginalising others, including the Kurds.

Ancient History

The Kurdish presence in Lebanon dates back to the 12th century, specifically the Ayyubid era. According to Jamal Hassan, president of the Nowruz Cultural and Social Association, Saladin relied on Kurdish tribes in the war against the Crusaders and used them for the protection of the Levant’s outposts and coasts.

Ottoman Lebanon relied on Kurdish pashas, aghas and princes for administrative and military positions. This Kurdish presence intensified after the failure of the Kurdish revolutions against the armies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, especially the revolutions of Sheikh Said of Piran, General Ihsan Nuri Pasha and Seyit Riza.

In the 1960s, Lebanon received a second wave of Kurdish immigrants, this time from Syria. According to one study, this wave was fueled by Syria’s political turmoil following 1958 and the accompanying decline in Syria’s economic situation. Hassan says most Syrian Kurds who migrated to Lebanon were from the impoverished working classes and often found work as porters.

Ali Mohammed Harfoush, a researcher specialising in the social sciences, concurs with the study: “The Kurdish history in Lebanon testifies to the emerging poverty from racism and the denial of naturalised Kurds to access professions and public jobs. They resorted to labour as porters and lived in impoverished neighbourhoods.” He adds that this bitter history “left its mark on the Kurds who are constantly reminded of the oppression, racism and stigmatisation.”

All these obstacles have not prevented the Kurds from actively seeking to assimilate into the fabric of Lebanese society. The bulk of Lebanon’s Kurdish families has been known to have been living in the country for hundreds of years. The most prominent families are the Sifas, Merhebis, Hamiyas, Jumblatts and Mashiks. The city of Akkar is said to have taken its name from Hakkari province – home to Kurdistan’s high mountains – where the Sifa and Merhebi families hail from.

Attempts at Political Integration

The Kurds have attempted to integrate socially, culturally and economically into Lebanese society. They were, however, unsuccessful in acquiring political representation.

Jamal Hassan believes that the Kurdish political movement has not succeeded in moving the Kurdish diaspora in Lebanon: “Some Lebanese political forces sought to exploit the Kurdish weight during the Lebanese civil war. As such, the Kurd’s voting power was distributed among rivalling political forces.”

On the other hand, Hassan says that the absence of Syrian-Kurdish politicians negatively affected Kurdish representation in Lebanon.

These conditions, combined with the deteriorating economic situation of most Kurds, prompted some Kurdish families to travel to Europe while others settled in Turkey.

According to Hassan Lebanon’s Kurds are Sunni. The Kurds do not have a separate quota in Lebanese official institutions as such, but are only represented in the Sunni quota.

Ghazala Saado, a 65-year-old Lebanese Kurdish woman, sums it up, “Our treatment as second-class citizens has made it hard to feel a sense of belonging in Lebanon. We suffer marginalisation and struggle to obtain the minimum necessities of life. Lately, we are seen exclusively for our voting powers. Our children lost their sense of belonging, so some travelled to Kurdistan and took up arms to defend their native homeland and were martyred.”

Path to Naturalisation

Saado points to the confusion of the Lebanese Kurds’ identity. Although Kurds lived in Lebanon since the 1920s, they have not been granted Lebanese citizenship. Their situation resembles that of Syriac Catholics, Orthodox, Assyrians and nomadic Arabs in Lebanon. Lebanon’s Kurds remained stateless, forcing them to conceal their identity to avoid discrimination.

Although there is no consensus on the number of Kurds in Lebanon, it is estimated there are between 100,000 and 150,000 Lebanese Kurds. They, however, do not have representation in the Lebanese parliament since the Lebanese constitution does not recognise the Kurds as a minority. As a result, Lebanese Kurds have felt oppressed and marginalised, affecting the development of this part of the Lebanese social fabric.

In the past, several Lebanese MPs have called for granting Kurds Lebanese citizenship. Examples include MP Sami Solh in 1951, Abdallah Machnouk in 1962, Adnan al-Hakim in 1969 and Abdelmajid al-Zein in 1971. Kamal Jumblatt also intervened to grant a large number of Kurds Lebanese citizenship.

Lebanon’s Kurds were naturalised in two stages. In 1956, some Kurdish families were granted Lebanese citizenship. And in 1994, Lebanese citizenship was granted to Kurds and several other minorities.

Mahmoud Faqih, an expert on Kurdish affairs, says most Kurds in Lebanon were born there. According to Faqih, about 125,000 people, including 10,000 Kurds, were granted Lebanese citizenship under Presidential Decree No. 5247 of 1994. However, some Kurds remain unnaturalised and are, therefore, denied access to educational services, social insurance and government jobs. Subsequently, illiteracy and unemployment rates among this group are high.

Hanan Othman, vice president of the Nowruz Cultural Association, points out that “injustices remain in all the countries where the Kurdish diaspora have settled,” referring to the Kurds’ deprivation of “citizenship and civil and political rights.”

Hassan told Fanack that the lack of acceptance of the Kurdish identity, like other minorities in Lebanon, is a result of biases against the countries they hail from originally, particularly Syria, Iran and Turkey.

Moreover, their governments have pressured subsequent Lebanese governments not to recognise the existence of the Kurdish identity since Lebanese recognition would have implications for the position of persecuted Kurds in these countries. Hassan believes the external pressure was and still is the sole reason for not recognising the Kurdish identity in the Lebanese constitution.

He says, “Kurds being stateless hinders their access to education and administrative positions, leading them to rely on manual labour and self-employment. Additionally, the absence of a recognition of the Kurdish identity in the Lebanese constitution has excluded them from political participation, leaving their representation primarily in the hands of Sunni candidates, who only seek their support during elections.”

Fanack Water Palestine