Beirut: the “Switzerland of the Middle East”


[taken by me @Ashrafieh]

This was the view from my bedroom’s balcony, every morning, when I woke up in Beirut, in Ashrafieh, a Christian neighborhood last summer.

Before I decided, in June, to go to Lebanon with the purpose of volunteering with Syrian refugees, I had heard several times that Beirut was the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. I  had been in Switzerland many times, and I may not know everything about Switzerland, but the time I spent in Lebanon was enough to understand that Beirut has nothing to do with Switzerland. I’ll start explaining.

The fallout from the war in Syria has forced around 2.3 million refugees to seek protection in neighboring countries, with Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt hosting the majority of the refugees. Lebanon represents the most problematic case among the host countries for several reasons:

-Lebanon has no presidency. The Lebanese parliament failed to elect the President. The presidential elections were held in Lebanon on 23 April 2014. No candidate reached a two-thirds majority vote in the first round and subsequent rounds failed to gain a quorum. Due to the continuous failure of Parliament in electing a new President, the body extended its own term until 2017.

-Lebanon has a polarized and divided community resulting in problematic political alliances. The March 8 political alliance (spearheaded by Hezbollah, the prominent Shiite party) supports the Assad regime, while the March 14 political alliance (spearheaded by Future Movement, the prominent Sunni party) supports the Free Syrian Army.

-The ratio of refugees to the local population is considerably high. Currently in Lebanon there is one Syrian for every four Lebanese citizens.

-The high influx of refugees (7,000 refugees enter Lebanese lands on a daily basis while around 6,000 are awaiting registration daily).

-The unequal dispersal of refugees in over 1500 locations around the country. Bekaa Valley is the region which has the majority of them.

Bekaa Valley is home to a refugee camp where approximately 400 families are living. That was the camp where I worked, distributed food and taught English. Helping in that way was extraordinary, of course, but listening to the families’ stories was even more remarkable. But it was painful, hearing those breathtaking life experiences. Sons of war, without fault for being in vulnerable situations.

On that main passageway between Damascus and Beirut, life was hard. It was about rebuilding destroyed people. It is harder to transform that than people’s pain. But that’s exactly what they needed.

After this experience – that I can’t describe in words as I wish – I learned many things that I couldn’t have imagined before. I had amazing classes, amazing teachers, who gave me the tools to understand the world, its politics and its religions. But the feeling of being broken, waking up every morning with those bullet marks on the walls, destroyed buildings, destroyed people… That, you don’t learn in a classroom. The feeling of being mixed with people from a country which is totally segregated, which basically has decentralized local institutions. Walking on the streets, noticing some dubious vans with tinted windows. Yes, members of Hezbollah.

The feeling of being mixed with people who try to ignore every day the deep wounds of the war and the variety of religions. The feeling of meeting united Palestinians on Hamra Street, expressing themselves against Israeli attacks on Gaza. This is a very well-known street in Beirut – Hamra Steet -, sitting down there you notice many of the secrets of Beirut.

The feeling of being called upon to give money uncountable times by Syrian refugees on the streets. Beautiful children, some of them always ready to offer you red roses, without asking for anything in return. The feeling of being impotent, not helping «society». Stories about children being raped in prisons during Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, stories told by the parents. Children don’t speak, but you don’t need their words. The scars on their skin tell everything.

This is the feeling of impotence, one that I’ve never felt before.

Besides all of this, arriving in Beirut was the weirdest experience ever. I arrived after midnight and there was an old security guy asking whether I was Lebanese or foreign. He divided the people depending on their answer and then those that were foreign had to get a visa. I was closed in a little room for 1 hour with two security guards in that airport. “Why have you decided to leave Portugal and come to «such a destroyed country»?” one security guard asked me, with a strange English accent. Then, both of them started asking about all the addresses and phone numbers of people I knew in Lebanon. Where I was going to stay. Everything. And then they left the room without saying anything, they just gave me my passport. Guess what … Finally I had my visa and I was “free to go”, I supposed. «Welcome to Asia», said the security guy from Passport Control.

This is Lebanon. Not the Switzerland of the Middle East.

Lebanon has mountains. They have a pluralistic society. They once had secure and convenient banking. [They also have chocolate production]. But the idea of a Middle Eastern Switzerland is a concept of the past.

When I returned to Portugal, I had to change airplane in Istanbul. I spent 24 hours in that beautiful city, without sleeping.

I was apathetic. In spite of being like that, Istanbul slowly melted my heart, and I was also delighted. At the end of the day, I caught the flight to Lisbon and I fell asleep during the flight.

I only woke up when we were almost landing, with an old and very excited Italian lady, speaking loudly, sitting next to me. I was near the window and she reached across me and pulled up the blind. I didn’t like the sun on my sleepy face, but suddenly I thought «I’m back home».

I felt strangely happy and comfortable. But a few minutes after I completely opened my eyes, I already knew I wanted to return. My curiosity is stronger than my fears.

Patrícia Fernandes


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