The timeline of a journalist covering “Syria/Lebanon” exclusively and one year ago he was covering water polo. Great. At some point I was an amateur too tho.
Flight next door
Many Syrians have moved to Lebanon to escape the conflict in their country, but not all of them are facing the harsh life of the refugee.
About six months ago, Youssef Al-Kabra came to Beirut to find work in a theatre. Pretty much all the creative arts had been put on hold in his native Syria, and fortunately for Youssef, a 28-year-old Palestinian-Syrian, he managed to find a position as the stage and events manager for a local theatre that was hosting performances dedicated to Syria during the month of April.
The work is barely enough to pay the rent of the studio he shares with a friend and for the expensive life of Beirut, but you will not find him complaining about his situation. His best friend Khaled was arrested a month ago in Abu Dhabi, accused of sending money to the opposition Free Syrian Army in Syria, and has been missing since.
Youssef’s Facebook account has two profile photos: one of Khaled, and another of his friend Ahmed, who died in Syria. “I try not to think about death, but every day I see pictures of people dying, and they are always new faces too,” he said.
Youssef is one of many Syrians crossing into Lebanon as war rages at home. While much of the world’s attention has been directed at the plight of Syrian refugees, officially numbering 400,000 in Lebanon but actually believed to be at least 800,000 or more, these people are not in search of a better life. At this point, pretty much any life would be better than living in Syria.
Lebanon has long been a second home for Syrians looking for employment. Construction workers, cooks, doormen, cleaners and other labourers are often Syrian, if only because they are willing to accept low salaries and undesirable positions, and they speak Arabic.
But as the war gets closer and closer to Damascus, more and more Syrians from different social classes are settling in Beirut. The white hijabs fashionable among wealthy Damascenes are now often seen in Hamra, an upscale neighbourhood of West Beirut known for its shopping and nightlife.
Expensive cars with Syrian plates are more common than they were just a few months ago, and some young men from Damascus are said to have come to Beirut to avoid being drafted into the military to battle rebels who will eventually make a run for the capital.
Since many of the universities and schools in Syria have been closed for a year or more, the only chance of their continuing their education is to come to Lebanon. For most, though, it’s a simple matter of wanting to live in safety.
“People have come here because it is better for them and their children. They have more peace of mind,” said Amar, who recently opened the Al-Farouk restaurant in Hamra and would only give his first name.
It’s not a perfect solution, though, and Syrians are not always welcome because of racism or because of abuses committed during Syria’s occupation of Lebanon that are not easily forgotten.
Yet, most of the time as long as they don’t talk politics Syrians can avoid trouble. This task is not hard for Syrians who grew accustomed to keeping their mouths shut or face harassment from the authorities at home.
“We don’t have any problems. We don’t have any issues here with any of the political parties,” Amar said.
As Amar watched a television programme showing images of a Syrian fighter jet that had been shot down, he expressed his doubts about the authenticity of the pictures to a customer and then returned to smoking his argileh.
The conflict in Syria had had nothing to do with his decision to open a restaurant in Beirut, he said.
He goes back to Damascus every few days because there are no problems in his neighbourhood, but still he appears anxious. Most of his customers are Syrian, and though they seem to have found a familiar place across the border, when they return to their own country because of the conflict there they may not always recognise what they find.