Lebanon in the midst of crises – A country full of refugees and NGOs

Written by Sarah Görlitz in collaboration with SalamLADC

Israel’s war on Palestine has been active again for over three months. Every day, the news is full of horrific images from Gaza, showing cities being destroyed by bombs, people being killed and tortured, and hungry children as there is a lack of humanitarian aid delivering basic goods. The media coverage of the war is huge. However, only rarely does it mention that it is not only Gaza that’s affected by the conflict but also Lebanon. Following decade-long disputes between Israel and Lebanon’s party Hezbollah, there have been Israeli attacks on the South of Lebanon, where Hezbollah is mainly situated. We wanted to know more about the extent of the attacks and their effect on the many displaced people in the country and the NGOs working with them. For this purpose, we talked to Hasan Mahmood, the operations manager of SalamLADC, a grassroots NGO in the West of Lebanon. 

Smoke rises from Dhayra village after Israeli shelling as pictured from the Lebanese town of Marwahin, near the border with Israel, southern Lebanon, October 11, 2023. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

The context – Lebanon pre-war 

Lebanon is a small country of about 5 million inhabitants bordering Syria and Israel. For such a small country it has a vastly diverse population. About 60% of the population are Muslim – primarily Sunni Muslims – about 40% are Christian. The majority of the population identify as Arab, but there are plenty of minorities, such as Armenians and Assyirans. Many towns are almost exclusively inhabited by Christians, others almost exclusively by Muslims. Accordingly, a 10 minute car drive brings you from a conservative town in which women are covered up and you cannot buy alcohol to a town that lives on nightlife and feels like a small version of Las Vegas. The capital Beirut is as diverse in itself as the rest of the country. Additionally, the diversity is enlarged by the many migrants in the country. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Lebanon has been hosting big numbers of Syrians. In January 2022, UNHCR estimated that there are around 1.5 million Syrians receding in Lebanon. Many Palestinians migrated to Lebanon generations ago. Lebanon has the highest number of refugees per capita worldwide. Historical developments caused this diversity and with it a big economic inequality within the country.  

This diversity has been the cause for conflicts in the country for a long time and especially since the start of the economic crisis in 2019 the different populations like to place blame  each other for their suffering. The value of the Lebanese pound decreases by the minute. An example: In summer 2022, 100 000 Lebanese pounds equaled three dollars. In spring 2023, 100 000 Lebanese pounds equaled only one dollar. Accordingly, prices have tripled but the salaries of the few jobs that still exist in the country stayed the same. The country’s government keeps losing power over the population and economically the country is governed by the black market rather than taxes. There is racism from Christians towards Muslims, from Lebanese people towards Syrians. Syrians are marginalised and discriminated against, not only on a societal level but also structurally.

Responding to these many crises, there is a big number of NGOs in the country. Big iNGOs as well as small grassroots NGOs. One of the latter is SalamLADC, which is a grassroots organization located in the Bekaa valley, a poor agricultural region bothering Syria. Big populations of Syrians live here, primarily in informal settlements made up of tents with no electricity or running water. Salam was founded in 2009 in response to the civil war in the South of Lebanon. In 2016, Salam’s operations were moved to Bekaa valley in response to the influx of Syrian migrants. Since the start of the economic crisis in Lebanon, however, it is no longer only Syrians who require humanitarian aid. While the Syrian population is still the most in need, with 90% of them living in extreme poverty, Palestinian and Lebanese people are strongly affected by the lack of jobs and resources in the country as well. The increasing poverty of the Lebanese and Palestinian populations required Salam’s response and the organization has been supporting people in need irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, or nationality. The fact that Salam’s beneficiaries are still primarily made up of Syrians is due to the fact that there is a big amount of Syrians living in the settlements in the Bekaa valley. And their situation has been dramatising in the past couple of years. Even though there has always been anti-Syrian sentiment among the Lebanese population, their presence in the country has been mostly accepted for years. But this has been changing lately. With the Syrian civil war being considered “over” in big parts of the world and the increasing struggle of the Lebanese population, both the government and Lebanese society have deepened their opinion that Syrians should leave the country.

“When people hear that you work for an NGO, their first question is: Are you working for Syrians? They won’t even ask for your name or what the work is. They just want to know if you’re working with Syrians; Why you’re working with Syrians; Do they really need help? etc. etc. So it’s a very divided opinion I would say. Either people understand that the Syrian population are living in extreme poverty – depending on where they live in the country – or they just believe that they shouldn’t be supported because  Lebanese society should be supported first.” 

Public opinion about Palestinians being present in the country is very different.

“Their status is very different to the Syrians. Because most of them have been here for generations. They don’t exactly migrate now from Palestine to Lebanon because of course they moved when there was the Nakba or when they were forcibly removed from their homes. So they are still here. They have a different kind of status where they are limited on the kind of jobs that they can have but they have some in-between Lebanese-Palestinian nationality.”

What has changed? – The war’s influence on Lebanese daily life 

Since Hamas’ attack on Israel on the 7th of October, Israel and Hezbollah have been exchanging attacks in the south of the country. Hezbollah describes their engagement against Israeli forces as “efforts to prevent their opponent’s full force from coming down on Hamas.” Despite Israel’s warnings to “turn Beirut into Gaza” should Hezbollah get involved, the attacks remain within a small radius on both sides of the border. According to AlJazeera, more than 100 Lebanese people have been killed in the incidents. 

Since Israel’s war on Gaza started,  people in Lebanon have been highly concerned with the possibility that Hezbollah might escalate the situation and bring the war to the whole of Lebanon. Many people expected Hezbollah to get involved quickly after Hamas’ attack on Israel and civilians living in the south have been leaving behind their homes to move further north. However, this worst case scenario has not happened as of yet.  

“They say they are monitoring the situation and if it gets worse they will retaliate and see what happens from there.” 

But still, there is a constant thread hovering over people’s heads. Surprisingly, in Bekaa valley the effects of the war are barely visible. Even though people are concerned with the situation, life goes on as usual for the most part.

“I think a country like this – where people are living by the day and they need to earn money, they need to go to work – they can’t just pause their lives because of something that could happen. For sure  people are speaking about it all the time and they are worried. But generally, you wouldn’t know that this country is possibly on the brink of war. So all this conflict is going on in the south, at the border. It’s not very visible in the communities here.”

However, the situation is different in the south of the country, where the attacks happen.

“In the south it’s very visible. A lot of people are moving. And on the days when the bombardments really increased, the movement of people was huge. If they had family or another house for example north, they went straight to the north. From what I know currently there are almost 60 000 people that are registered as internally displaced. People are definitely moving from the south. But the south does feel far away from where we are.”

The only way SalamLADC sees this development, is that now there are a lot of Lebanese people from the south of the country registering as students of Salam’s community centre. People are escaping the south and moving primarily to Beirut and the Bekaa valley. For the Syrian population in the country, the war does not seem to have a big effect. Rather than returning to Syria, which in big parts of the world is considered a “safe country” now, they prefer to stay in Lebanon. 

“I know some Syrians have debated whether they should go back to Syria. But I think, knowing that they don’t have anything to go back to in Syria they feel like they should stay here. They have a home here, they have families, they have a life here in some shape or form. So, they still feel like this is the safest place to be.”

From development to aid – How do NGOs respond to the threat?

So the only thing that has visibly changed in the Bekaa valley since Israel started attacking Gaza, is that in addition to the many displaced Syrians in the region there are now a lot of internally displaced Lebanese people. At the same time, all of Salam’s international volunteers – just like a lot of international staff of other NGOs – left the country. When the al-Ahli hospital in Gaza was attacked by Israel, many governments expected Hezbollah to join the fighting and therefore requested their citizens to leave the country. Most volunteers were reluctant to leave but thought in case of a war breaking out in Lebanon, the airport would probably close and they would be stuck in the country. Luckily, most of Salam’s projects could be continued and are now run by  local staff. 

But how do you respond to a war that could potentially happen but has not happened yet? Salam owns a small community centre in the south of Lebanon, which is close to the Israeli border and from which the bombardments have already been visible. The centre was repurposed as an emergency accommodation shelter for people who live so close to the border that their lives and homes are in danger. However, in case the war actually spills over to Lebanon, this centre will be closed and Salam will focus on supporting emergency shelters in Bekaa with food preparation and first aid training, as they expect most people in the south to move north. In addition to that, Salam is preparing for  war spreading over Lebanon by creating emergency plans for every scenario they could think of. 

“There’s definitely been a lot of planning for the worst case scenario. We’ve just been talking about war for the last month or so. So we’ve made a lot of contingency plans and emergency plans and created scenarios to know where we are right now, what could happen, what’s the best solution to these, and how we would then need to react and prepare ourselves when they do happen. For example, we’re prepared for remote learning in case we need to do that. We increased our emergency response in terms of storing a lot of distribution items in all our centres to prepare for, if anything does happen. And if a war starts, then we are planning to do emergency activities as well. They are prepared and ready so if it ever gets to the point we can just start doing these projects. They’ll be focused on first aid, and food distribution.”

SalamLADC has been in close contact with their partners and other organizations and coordinated their emergency response planning with them. These other organizations are responding in a very similar way. Whoever can leave the country is suggested to do so, operations are moved away from the south, and basic goods are being stocked up to prepare for building emergency shelters and distributions.

The region, as many parts of the country, is already struggling with overpopulation and poverty. With more people in need, NGOs have to further divide their resources. Additionally,  international NGO employees contributed to the revenue of local businesses . With them gone, the local economy has been suffering even more than before. And with the volunteers leaving, Salam is missing a big source of funding – the volunteers’ rent. Luckily, with more crises comes more funding. The possibility of a war breaking out in Lebanon has gotten the attention of donor organizations. Unfortunately though, the additional funding is not quite enough to balance the additional costs and missing revenue. 

Therefore, Salam is hoping for the support of private individuals in order to be able to offer as much help as possible to people who are or will be affected by the effects of the conflict. If you would like to support SalamLADC (external organisation to OCC) in their emergency response, you can donate HERE!

Hope during yet another crisis

After the possibility of Hezbollah’s involvement in the war bringing violence to Lebanon has existed for several months now, Hasan does not believe that it will become reality.

“I truly believed that once Gaza was going to be infiltrated that would be the turning point of Lebanon entering the war, but then it didn’t. So I don’t know what needs to happen for Lebanon to be dragged into the war, at this point. All circumstances that possibly could have done that, have happened already.”

So even though there are attacks happening on Lebanese territory, Lebanon is not at war – yet. 

“The conflict in the south is definitely happening and it’s very visible. But it does feel very far away from where we are.”

Postscript

After we conducted this interview with Hasan, the situation has changed significantly.

Last week the conflict reached further into Lebanon. Israel attacked Beirut, targeting some of the leaders of Hamas who had  been living in exile in the country since 2015. Concerned that “Lebanon will be exposed” if it shows no reaction to the attack, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah then spoke out for retaliation and an involvement of Hezbollah in the conflict. Since then, Hezbollah has carried out several attacks on Israel. 

Sources

UNHCR, 2022, https://www.unhcr.org/lb/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2022/03/UNHCR-Lebanon-Operational-Fact-Sheet-Jan.-2022.pdf.

UNHCR, 2020, https://www.unhcr.org/lb/14025-nine-out-of-ten-syrian-refugee-families-in-lebanon-are-now-living-in-extreme-poverty-un-study-says.html.

AlJazeera, 2023.

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2023/12/18/hamas-is-now-recruiting-in-lebanon-what-will-that-mean-for-hezbollah

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/14/hezbollahs-strategic-calculation-israel-gaza-and-the-domestic-equation

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/11/21/israeli-strike-kills-three-journalists-near-lebanon-border

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/1/at-least-three-killed-in-south-lebanon-as-israel-hezbollah-resume-fighting

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/12/5/lebanese-army-says-one-soldier-killed-in-israeli-shelling-near-border

https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2023/11/26/photos-lebanese-residents-of-border-towns-return-home-amid-truce-in-gaza

AlJazeera, 2024, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/1/5/hezbollah-chief-warns-lebanon-could-be-exposed-to-more-israeli-attacks

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/1/4/israels-long-history-of-assassination-attempts-in-lebanon

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2024/1/6/he

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