Sunday, February 7, 2016
Lebanon – Dream or Nightmare-in-Waiting
This is very personal blog for me. You see, I was a just boy, living with a divorced mom in Washington, D.C. when she wound up marrying a career American Foreign Service Officer. His next post – at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, as a commercial attaché (promoted later to Chief, Economic Section) – would change my life forever. I turned 13 on the ship heading across the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, and when we arrived in Beirut on January 10, 1960, I thought it was exotic and strange.
The cries of the muezzin (the singing voice calling the faithful Muslims to prayer from the towers above the neighborhood mosques), the voices street vendors – selling items like “kahyek” (a sesame/spice filled crispy bread), “artichokey” (guess what) or serving juice from a canister strapped to their backs, bending forward to create an arcing liquid into a cup to be sold to a thirsty customer – it was fascinating. The beaches were white sand and excellent (until the oil slick from a pipe rupture), the snow-capped mountains with great skiing resorts, friendly people, streetcars that I learned to jump off of when they were at full speed, and hospitality unbridled. I fell in love with this incredible land and welcoming people. A former French colony, Lebanese had a weird mix of Arabic heritage with a French joie de vivre. It was, to put it mildly, charming.
To this very day, I have never been received more graciously, treated with warmer hearts, than the Lebanese of my youth – Maronite Catholics, Sunnis, Shiites, Druze… you name it, they were extraordinary. I travelled to Syria, Jordan, Egypt, but nothing was as cheerful and welcoming as my new Lebanese home. When I left Beirut four years later to attend college back in the states, I looked over my shoulder as I boarded the Pan Am jet was about to take me away. I was sad.
I have never been back since. When I had the money to travel, Lebanon had unraveled. The richer folks, mostly Maronite and Sunni, had mostly moved to Dubai, France, a few to the States, a large contingent to start businesses in South America. Factions began to battle for turf in the 1970s and 80s (with a short explosion in 2008). Everything fell apart. Palestinians entered the southern part of Lebanon, and as the locals asked Israel for help to deal with these intruders, Israeli planes instead bombed the south indiscriminately. Civil war expanded, with Syria cackling in the background, financing its surrogates. Iran fomented a powerful surge of Hezbollah to reinforce what had once been a Shiite minority, now moving into political control of the country as a whole. The Lebanese in charge were puppets of foreign forces.
Explosions, shootings, bombings. Familiar buildings destroyed. My high school shot up (but still running). Lapses of peace and stability with an occasional resurgence of violence. Recently, the government was unable to pick a president. For over a year. The government simply failed to perform its most basic functions; garbage piled up in the streets, uncollected. But somehow, that little spark that drives Lebanese to enjoy life, to laugh and smile, endured. Hot sexy beaches, hotter bands playing on rooftop cafes, and a people born to work hard but cherish their friends and families still rose above it all, according to my Lebanese comrades… and play harder. Miracle of miracle, Lebanon stabilized… enough anyway.
But even for those people who found joy amidst the turmoil around them, they were looking over their shoulders at the horrific conquest of vast portions of Syria and Iraq by ISIS. And with its magnificent harbors, particularly Beirut itself, Lebanon was and is an obvious target as ISIS seeks to enhance its access to the sea and control the Levant above Israel. People in Lebanon are worried as they should be. About 1.2 million Syrian refugees have recently fled to Lebanon, creating a migrant problem of enormous proportions. Until the past two years, Lebanon had a population of 4.3 million (including about 450 thousand Palestinians), but with the flood of people escaping ISIS, Lebanon now a country of 5.5 million. How would the US fare with an influx equal to a quarter of its population?
But maintaining stability in Lebanon is a precious commodity in troubled times, and even with all of that turmoil, Lebanon still represents hope to the rest of the region, if not the world. “Lebanon has weathered five years of Middle Eastern turmoil remarkably well but its stability should not be taken for granted and it needs long-term financial help to cope with a huge number of Syrian refugees, a senior U.N. official said.
“U.N. Special Coordinator for Lebanon Sigrid Kaag, speaking before a Syria donors' conference in London, said on [February 3rd] that the [Lebanese] refugee crisis must be recognized as long-term and the response must move beyond meeting humanitarian needs… ‘Our big message is really the need for sustainable, long-term predictable financing, and very much a focus on not only humanitarian but also what we call stabilization support ... job creation,’ Kaag told Reuters.
“With many Syrian children stuck indefinitely in refugee camps, education is also a major priority. ‘The first response of humanitarians is always protect and save lives. But we are now looking at a generation that needs to go to school,’ she said in an interview…
“While Lebanon has avoided its own conflict since the start of the Syrian war, its politicians are struggling to agree on anything. That has left the government largely paralyzed and the country without a president… ‘Let's really keep our eye on the ball on Lebanon, let's support Lebanon, let's be active for Lebanon, but Lebanon needs to be in the driver's seat,’ Kaag said.
“With a return of refugees to Syria unlikely for some time, Kaag said ‘we need to really look at the fragility and stability of Lebanon in holistic manner.’ ‘There's politics, there's security, and the socio-economic development side of Lebanon should really be propped up.’… The London donors' conference builds on previous such meetings in Kuwait. U.N. agencies are appealing for a total of $7.73 billion to cope with Syria's needs this year.
“The Lebanese government is expected to seek donor support for plans including infrastructure investment that will create jobs, and funds to support its public schools that are taking in Syrian children… ‘As the economy has suffered from the crisis, unemployment has risen ... particularly in poorer areas and amongst the young people, so the debate on employment has always been very sensitive, and there was a reluctance to address it,’ Kaag said.
“She acknowledged the risk of ill-feeling if Syrian refugees compete with Lebanese people for scarce jobs. Proposals from the Lebanese government would in any case allow them to work only in labor-intensive sectors such as construction and agriculture… ‘But now I think six years into the crisis there is a realization that there is a large potential workforce. It may benefit the economy and therefore Lebanon, but we need to look at job creation for Lebanese alongside vulnerable refugees.’” Reuters, February 3rd.
Borders across the region are shutting down to fleeing Syrians, even as Russian bombs, Assad’s assaults and ISIS attacks have made increasing blocks of land intolerable. “[As] Syria witnesses a new escalation of violence, including waves of Russian airstrikes, and as Syrians flee for safety again by the tens of thousands, neighboring countries are increasingly overwhelmed and reluctant to let them in. In many places, that early altruism has hardened into resentment — an ominous turn for those fleeing war.
“Desperate Syrians are backed up at the borders of Jordan and Turkey, barred from entering or else just allowed to trickle in. Increasingly, they find escape routes closing.… In a recent report, the Norwegian Refugee Council warned that new restrictions in the nations bordering Syria had made the country’s 4.3 million refugees more vulnerable than ever. The Lebanese borders are effectively closed, and costly new regulations threaten the legal residency status of hundreds of thousands of Syrians already in Lebanon.” New York Times, February 7th. Nobody wants them, and they have no place to go but stay in their homes to starve or face bullets and bombs.
Mostly, we have talk about destroying ISIS. Without building hope for the future, all that destruction will guarantee is many generations of hateful people with nothing left to lose. Whatever is not spent today will come back to haunt us tenfold or worse in the future. Someone has to care or we will all be slammed… sooner or later.
I’m Peter Dekom, and it is time to start thinking about all those folks struggling in the Middle East as human beings… vulnerable, scared and eager to live their lives in safety… someday.