My first contribution to al-Akhbar English.
By: Moe Ali Nayel
Published Sunday, July 29, 2012
When news broke on May 22 of the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese men in Aleppo by a Syrian opposition group, scores of angry Lebanese men took to the streets. Intent on revenge, they were looking for Syrians. Fortunately, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah intervened with a speech saying, “The Syrian nationals in Lebanon are our people and attacking them is an offense.” His words, which hold much sway among followers and fans, saved many from being beaten, or worse.
But that incident is not unique in Lebanon’s history with its Syrian labor force. Whenever Syria-related political unrest threatens Lebanon, the Syrian workers are the first to suffer. As if they were official representatives of the Syrian regime, the workers are an easy first target.
“It’s becoming dangerous for Syrians working in Lebanon,” Jihad, a 29 year-old Syrian worker from Daraa told me. “My friends were stopped in Ouzai [Beirut suburbs] by thugs who erected a checkpoint in the middle of the street.” He expressed relief at Nasrallah’s appeal: “I was relieved when Nasrallah came out and asked the masses to leave us alone. His call saved us.”
Jihad, who has worked in Beirut for many years, does menial jobs that many Lebanese consider beneath them. This attitude holds true for the vast number of foreign workers in Lebanon — many of them Syrian — who come to work as cleaners, domestic help, construction and agricultural workers. Lebanon’s labor laws provide a further incentive for Syrians to emigrate here. The interpretation of these laws make it easy for businesses to import foreign labor, thereby avoiding minimum wage regulations and calls by local workers to improve working conditions.
Said Itani is the Lebanese owner of a Beirut clothing business. He says he would rather have ten Syrian workers than five Lebanese. “If I hire a Lebanese worker I have to pay them Lebanese wages and deal with registering them with social security. A Lebanese will start asking for a raise and will want to learn the secrets of my business — after a few years he will want to start his own.”
Jihad and workers like him have a continuing sense of instability. Following the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri — in which Syria was accused of involvement — there were violent attacks on Syrians throughout Lebanon and many were forced to flee. Today, Jihad explains, “It’s ironic, I’ve been working here in Ras Beirut for 20 years. When Hariri was killed we were attacked by the residents… We had to flee back to Syria. We returned after the hate against us lessened and the Lebanese realized that they need us to get things done.”
Many Syrian workers are virtually trapped in Lebanon because their Syrian home cities are war zones. There has been much focus on the safety of Syrian activists taking refuge in Lebanon, while the safety of Syrian workers has been overlooked. Activists have made their stories heard while a multitude of workers’ stories have gone unnoticed.
Ali Atiyeh a 34-year-old Syrian who has worked in Lebanon for 15 years as an electrician, has experienced daily racism. “Any interaction with the Lebanese people always brings the possibility of a racist encounter. It’s all good until they ask me where I’m from, and when I say I’m from Syria their faces change.”
Atiyeh who speaks the Lebanese dialect adds that he feels slightly different from most Syrian workers. “I have been integrated into the Lebanese way of life. I spend money, go out, and always buy new clothes.” But even with his integration he never feels totally safe. “For example if I’m coming back home from work late at night and there is a police checkpoint and I get stopped, I’m automatically a suspect because I’m Syrian.”
“The latest trend is men driving around at night stopping Syrian workers. The men claim that they are security forces. They mug the worker and drive away,” Atiyeh says.
Racism doesn’t stop there either. According to Atiyeh, “Now that the Syrian revolution is fashionable it has become cool for some Lebanese girls to go out with Syrian activists, while two years ago this was out of the question. I once loved a Lebanese girl and we went out in secret. I knew her family and they treated me as one of them. I decided to propose and asked her father if he agreed to us getting married. After that I was outcast from the family — the mother told me that she would never let her daughter marry a Syrian.”
Many Syrian workers live in extreme poverty; several may share small apartments while others live in tents, shacks, or outdoors on the construction sites where they work. They are therefore visible and an easy target for attacks by Lebanese.
Raed, 17, a Syrian shoe shiner and freelance worker in Beirut — his many other jobs include washing stairs in apartment buildings and delivering food and gas — is scared of being attacked. “Now, since the news about the kidnapped Lebanese, people have warned me not leave this neighborhood because they fear for my safety.”
He speaks about an incident in a stronghold of the Amal Movement. “The other day I was in Hay al-Lija and felt that I was not welcome…A man marched up to me and asked me where I’m from in Syria. I told him Aleppo. I did not dare say I’m from Daraa. Then men gathered and showered me with insults about my sister and mother. I was getting scared and a slap to my face came from nowhere. I pushed them and ran away.”
Raed’s story is not unusual, he says: “Workers can never feel secure in Lebanon. Here, where I live now, our burden is a bit easier than before the Syrian revolution. Now people in this area are seeing us as the sons of one sect. They see us now as Sunnis more than Syrians.” The area that Raed is talking about is traditionally a Sunni neighborhood.
Attacks against Syrians have always crossed sectarian lines. All Lebanese sects have at times been hostile towards Syrians. However, the recent uprising has made old enemies into new comrades. Supporters of Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik, support the Syrian opposition. “Now,” Jihad says, “these same Lebanese greet us, smile and seem to be fond of us. It makes one wonder what this sudden love for the Syrians is — from the same Lebanese who just a few years ago insulted and looked down on us, as if we were not human.”