The face of war is never more real and striking than in the face of those who flee the violence, the bloodshed and the destruction, leaving everything behind but their loved ones, carrying nothing but their own battered lives. Today, this war is in Syria, an uprising that went terribly wrong, quickly giving way to a seemingly long and messy civil war. Its face is in the poignant images of death, suffering and survival of those who cannot or refuse to leave, as well as those who gave up or could escape somewhere else, to start anew, or to wait and carry on with their suffering from afar.
In what has become one of many ironies within the context of the Arab uprisings, an increasing number of Syrians have fled to Lebanon, when recent history has shown us that Lebanon is more of a country to flee from, not flee to. As the fighting approaches Damascus, and with it entangling Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk between pro-government and opposition fighters, Palestinians have also joined their Syrian brethren in seeking shelter in Lebanon.
As the presence of Syrians in Lebanon has caused tensions within host communities, challenges to find the means by which to support them, and controversy by the very term – refugees – used to describe them, the recent arrival of Palestinians is certain to exacerbate all the above. Although many Palestinians will join relatives already residing in one of Lebanon’s 12 Palestinian refugee camps, the means to support them are severely limited, and the controversy they will generate, given Lebanon’s long and complicated history with past and existing Palestinian refugees, cannot be ignored.
But let me be clear, I doubt there are but a few in Lebanon that do not recognize our obligation as human beings first and foremost, and as Middle Easterners, Arabs and neighbors second to stand in solidarity with all those knocking on our door, seeking shelter from the bombs of an atrocious regime we have long suffered from ourselves.
However, I also know that Lebanon lacks the capability to sustain such influx of refugees and deal with all the subsequent social, political, historical and geographical repercussions. The Western international community has increased its contributions to the effort of assisting refugees, but should also help direct refugees to countries like Jordan and Turkey, whose demography and geography are more favorable to such influx. The Lebanese government has also finally woken up from its disassociation policy-induced coma, presenting an action plan and requesting around $200 million in assistance to aid refugees. And although the government seems to be aware of the challenges and sensitivities involved, Lebanese governments generally lack a good track record in truly grasping such challenges (using any situation for their personal political interests) or being transparent about disbursement of assistance to its own nationals, let along foreign nationals.
Even as we fulfill our unquestionable duty of assisting refugees in the short-term, as we should, we must also be aware and raise awareness of the fact that Lebanon can no longer handle such influx in the medium and long-term. Moreover, the flow of refugees will certainly not stop if and when the Assad regime falls. By that time, will Lebanon have been able, through its own government and international donors, to adopt and enforce adequate and balanced policies to face the challenge of an increasing number of refugees?
Almost a year and a half ago, at the outset of the Syrian uprising, it was impossible to ignore the historical irony of having Syrians fleeing their country, while Palestinians trying to reach their own. Today, they both gather in Lebanon under the same umbrella of refugees, while one hopes to go back home, other eternally dreams of home and a host country who doesn’t know what to make of home.