The Syria crisis has forced thousands of refugees to the Lebanese capital, a city that has offered shelter to displaced people throughout its history. Beirut resident Jenny Gustafsson offers a personal view of this timeless urban story
Jenny Gustafsson in Beirut
They seem symbolic of our times, but today’s refugee boats are not the first to cross the Mediterranean. One hundred years ago, Armenian refugees took them to escape genocide. At that time, Syria and Lebanon were destinations, not points of departure.
“They came with boats to Beirut and would first settle in Karantina, where people were quarantined before entering the city,” says Mona Fawaz, an associate professor of urban planning in Beirut. Fawaz is working on a book about the city’s informal areas, and how they were built by refugees and other newcomers.
“Forced migrants are part and parcel of making Beirut,” she says. “They have shaped it through its history, with a combination of their own agency and ability to create liveable places.”
Palestinians, Iraqis, Assyrians, Sudanese and, most recently, Syrians: all have come to Beirut as refugees. Lebanese from rural areas have arrived as well, displaced by wars and conflicts. The places where they settled – because many have stayed, not returned – have become part of what makes Beirut a city.
Many of the Armenian refugees moved from the port area to a camp on the city’s eastern fringes: Bourj Hammoud, established on a marshy piece of rural land. Soon, it had simple dwellings and quarters with names like Sis, Marash and Adana – places the refugees had left behind.
“My grandmother came to Beirut with her three small children, after having travelled as a refugee for years. She heard that they could live with other Armenians here and not feel like outsiders,” says Arpi Mangassarian, a Lebanese-Armenian who was born in Beirut and heads Bourj Hammoud’s technical and urban planning office. “This area has something sacred to it; it tells stories of faith and survival. Not the way animals survive, but how people survive and continue to create new things.”
On Mangassarian’s initiative, a pink building in Bourj Hammoud with windows overlooking the street has been turned into a community centre in support of local art and culture. She stays at the centre until late most evenings, and it is dark outside by the time she comes to the end of her family’s story – their settling in Beirut, making the decision to stay and not look back.
“But it’s wrong to call it a story,” she corrects me. “What happened to them is something real, and happens to the Syrians today – the very same thing.”
Across the city, just off the road leading to the airport, is Shatila, established as one of Beirut’s Palestinian camps. The first winter rains have just arrived and the roads are filled with pools of water. On a narrow street sits Zohour Damriye, whose parents fled to Lebanon in 1948. A heavy sewing machine is placed just outside her house – she is a seamstress and prefers to do her work outside (besides, her house does not have enough space inside).
“This is home, where I belong,” she says. “But Shatila is not an easy place to live; it has memories from the war. In 1982, during the massacre, I barely escaped with my children. I took one on each arm and ran.”
Shatila began much like Bourj Hammoud, with simple shacks set up by aid organisations; then expanded, little by little, into permanent dwellings. But unlike Bourj Hammoud, which is now its own municipality, Shatila has not been allowed to become an integrated neighbourhood. The Armenians got Lebanese citizenships in the 1920s; the Palestinians remain without, and can neither own property outside the camps, nor work on the same terms as Lebanese people.
“The camps are social places where you walk down the street and everyone will say good morning,” Fawaz says. “What is sad is that they don’t offer any economic opportunities, even minimal levels of liveability.”
A woman walks up to Damriye outside her house, picks up a repaired dress, and pays her with a 1,000 lira bill (less than 50p). “It’s too little for the work,” Damriye says, as she accepts the money. “But she’s Syrian, I know she can’t afford more.”
She points to some houses further down the street. They have many Syrian families living in them now, she says. Some owners have added floors on top of the already towering buildings, making some additional room.
For many Syrians, the Palestinian camps are among the few spaces that are affordable. A small portion – those with savings, or jobs that pay enough – rent apartments in Beirut and other cities. Others seek shelter wherever they can – on rented farmland, and in empty houses and disused garages.
Inside an alley near Beirut’s National Museum is a small house with wooden walls, almost leaning against the building next to it. It is the home of Widad Barghouz and her family, originally from Idlib in northern Syria.
“It’s my husband who built it,” Barghouz says. “He works at a construction site nearby and saw there was an abandoned garage here. So he went and asked the owner if he could build a house.”
She sits outside with a cup of maté, the South American drink brought to the Middle East by returning migrants generations ago. Of course, life here is different from Idlib, she says. In Syria they had a house in the countryside, with their own land and cows and sheep. But at least now they are safe.
Many other Syrians – caretakers, construction workers and keepers of small shops – simply sleep where they work. Mohammad Mohammad, a philosophy student from Hasakeh in north-east Syria, has moved from place to place since he arrived. When working to build big cement breakwaters, he slept on top of a container just off the coastal highway. He made coffee on a gas burner in the evenings, and was kept company by a stray dog, Tarzan, who showed up at the container one day.
“I’m alone so I manage to live like this,” he says. “I haven’t asked for any help, because I know there are so many families who need it more than me.”
For long-time residents of Beirut, sharing their city with refugees has become part of life. Co-existence is a question of necessity: both refugees and citizens know that return will not happen as long as the conflicts are not resolved. Often, links from today extend back to pre-war times: Syrians have lived and worked in Lebanon for a long time. It is impossible to know the exact numbers (“we don’t like numbers in this country, we prefer what they call ‘creative mathematics’,” Fawaz says), but the community was big.
Elsewhere in Beirut, many areas have grown in similar ways to the refugee camps. The civil war emptied entire neighbourhoods of their residents – and created vacant spots for others to move in.
Ouzai, a seaside neighbourhood in the south of Beirut, is one of them. What once was a sleepy hamlet, and then a popular tourist destination, is now a closely built neighbourhood with makeshift and permanent shops and houses, housing families displaced from rural Lebanon.
“Political parties encouraged people to occupy what used to be high-end beaches. In the 1960s, the local mayor – who thought the land should be public – even built a house nearby as an act of resistance,” says Fawaz.
Many cities have a history of hosting refugees; indeed, the typical image of a refugee dwelling – straight rows of nondescript tents set up on barren, faraway lands – is misleading. The majority of refugees today reside in cities, where they contribute to the local economy and create new forms of mobility and production.
In Beirut, this is exactly what has happened. Bourj Hammoud has become a busy commercial area, with affordable shops and artisans of traditional crafts. Sabra, the indistinguishable neighbour of Shatila, is home to a large vegetable market, serving low-income families from all parts of Beirut. The areas house new residents too: in particular low-paid migrant workers, who move there for their relatively central locations and cheap transport options. Ethiopian hair salons, Bangladeshi mini-markets and other shops with south Asian food are visual indicators of that change.
“This is what happens when you lift a piece of land out of the housing market to create a camp,” Fawaz says. “It becomes a place for other low-income people as well.”
Despite this change, Beirut’s Armenian and Palestinian areas still manifest displacement and identity. Bourj Hammoud’s graffiti reads “Occupied Armenia” and “Turkey guilty of genocide”; one in Shatila portrays doves and maps of Palestine, drawn according to its pre-1948 borders. Just around the corner from where Zohour Damriye lives is a big, colourful portrait of the peace activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in 2003.
Yet the kind of experience Beirut has seen differs from that of formal refugee camps, where boundaries are clearly defined and residents confined. “Refugeeness” in the Lebanese context is a more fluid process – a reflection of ongoing societal change. In that sense, it resembles the rapid urbanisation of many global cities, where incoming rural populations are creating new, informal places to live.