ADVERTISEMENT

Syrian refugees are living amid mud and sewage in tents originally set up for seasonal workers near the village of Mejdel.

LYNSEY ADDARIO • New York Times ,

Lebanon mostly ignores growing Syria refugee tide

  • Article by: ANNE BARNARD
  • New York Times
  • February 23, 2013 - 7:19 PM

– A human tide has crept into Lebanon, Syria’s smallest and most vulnerable neighbor.

As Syrian refugees pour over the border, the village priest in Qaa, Elian Nasrallah, provides them with medical treatment in his clinic and trudges through muddy fields to deliver blankets. When Christian villagers fret about the flood of Sunni Muslims, he replies that welcoming them is “the real Christianity.”

But the priest and his parishioners cannot keep up. The United Nations counts more than 305,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, but local officials and aid workers say the actual number is about 400,000, saturating the country of 4 million.

The Lebanese government has largely left them to fend for themselves. Deeply divided over Syria, haunted by memories of an explosive refugee crisis a generation ago, it has mostly ignored the problem, dumping it on overwhelmed communities like Qaa.

So far, Lebanon’s delicate balance has persevered, but there is a growing sense of emergency. Sectarian tensions are rising. Syrian rebels in border villages have clashed with Lebanese soldiers. The government’s anemic response has delayed international aid, and local volunteers are running out of cash and patience.

And the battle for Damascus, the Syrian capital, has barely begun. Should fighting overwhelm that religiously and politically mixed city of 2.5 million people, a half-hour drive from Lebanon, the Lebanese fear a cataclysm that could sweep away their tenuous calm.

“There is a limit to what the country can handle,” said Nadim Shubassi, mayor of Saidnayel, a Sunni town now packed with Syrians. “Maybe we have reached this limit now.”

Lebanon’s refugee crisis does not match the familiar image of vast tent camps and armies of foreign aid organizations. It is nowhere and everywhere. Displaced Syrians seem to fill every nook and cranny: half-finished cinder-block houses, stables, crowded apartments.

Swamped and resentful

At first, most refugees — mainly Sunnis, like most of the rebels fighting Syria’s government — headed for friendly Sunni areas.Now, those communities are swamped and resentful, and Syrians are spreading to places where they fit less comfortably, from Christian mountain villages to the Mediterranean city of Tyre in the southern Shiite Muslim heartland.

They are moving, with some trepidation, into Qaa, in the northern Bekaa Valley, the territory of the powerful Shiite militia Hezbollah, which is allied with Syria’s government and, to many refugees, just as fearsome.

As they flee increasingly sectarian killing, Syrians layer their fears onto those of a country deeply scarred by its own generation-long sectarian civil war. They are testing, yet also relying on, the fragile yet flexible balance that has endured there, punctured by occasional fighting, since Lebanon’s war ended 22 years ago.

What really makes the refugees politically radioactive is a painful national memory. Palestinians poured into Lebanon in 1948 and 1967, fleeing conflicts with Israel. Their arrival stoked sectarian divisions that helped ignite civil war. More than 400,000 Palestinians still live there, in camps with pockets of poverty and extremism where violence periodically erupts.

Fearing another permanent influx, the government ruled out camps for Syrians, provided limited help and gave international agencies little leeway.

Lebanon’s government can no longer deny the crisis. Last month, Hezbollah urged Lebanese to welcome refugees regardless of sect or politics. The government reversed course, at least on paper. It approved plans to manage the crisis with help from the United Nations, which now awaits funds and permission to build two transit camps, each housing 5,000 refugees, a drop in the bucket.

© 2014 Star Tribune