Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Photo: AFP
BEIRUT, Lebanon - Many thousands of Kurds fled the violence in Syria and went to Lebanon. They mainly found hardship there, as a result of the negative feelings of many Lebanese towards Syrians.
“They do not make the difference between Kurds and Arabs. We are Syrians and the Lebanese hate all Syrians,” says Nawrez, a Syrian Kurd from a village near Aleppo. He lives with his wife Nariman and their five-month-old daughter Fatma near the Lebanese town of Jounieh.
Nawrez, 27, is one of the over one million Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. Although he came as a worker 12 years ago and is a foreman in the building sector, now he cannot go back home because of the bad safety situation there. Three of his brothers have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.
His home village, Ain al-Arab, is closed in by fighters of the radical Islamic group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and only the PYD, the Syrian wing of PKK, is keeping them out, Nawrez says. “My wife’s father went missing when he visited a cousin outside the village, about a month ago. He was abducted by members of al-Nusrah.”
Nawrez knows of about 500 Kurds from Syrian Kurdistan working in building projects in his area. Next to that, many Syrian men work in the Lebanese restaurants and hotels. The Lebanese economy has been dependent on Syrian laborers for years. When the Syrian army was made to depart in 2005, ending many years of Syrian intervention in Lebanon, the anti-Syrian sentiments made Syrian laborers leave too. But they soon returned.
Today, with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees pouring into the country, the negative feelings towards the Syrians have not improved at all. There is little contempt for the refugees; Lebanon depends completely on international organizations to look after them. When snow covered the camps in the Bekaa in December, refugees died of the cold.
Amongst these refugees are many thousands of Kurds, says Goulistan Mohamed, executive secretary of the Lebanese Kurdish Philanthropic Association in the Lebanese capital of Beirut. Based on a family size of six to 10, she puts their number surprisingly high, at a half-million, which is almost half of all the Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
No official number has been put on the Kurdish refugees in Lebanon, who come from all over Syria: Damascus, Aleppo and even as far away as Hasaka and Qamishli. In comparison, just over 200,000 Syrian Kurds have fled to Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mohamed’s Kurdish association in Beirut was founded over 40 years ago to help Kurds in Lebanon, who mainly originate from Turkey and often were amongst the poorest in Lebanon.
The association’s clinic did not survive the civil war, and money to revive it has not been found. The organization only just survives on the donations of a wealthy Kurdish businessman and the membership fees.
It still offers medical help and medicines, food for Kurdish families in need and help for students to get into Lebanese schools. But now it works mainly as a cultural organization with a football team, Newroz celebrations, cultural conferences and Kurdish (Kurmanji) lessons. Plans to set up a school have been stalled for lack of finances.
“Now we try to help the refugees from Syria,” says Mohamed. “We direct them to the United Nations, and when they come to our office we offer them second-hand clothes for free.”
The organization tried in vain to get money to be able to do more. “The Lebanese minister of Social Affairs did not even meet us,” Mohamed says bitterly.
Nor was a bid to get support from the Iraqi Kurdistan government or its parties successful. Meetings with Kurdish ministers and party executives led to promises that were never fulfilled. “Maybe they just don’t want to help us,” she sighs.
Although Nawrez’s young family in Jounieh barely survives on his salary, he is aware that their life is better than that of most Kurds who fled to Lebanon. Their neighbors may be hostile, yet they live in an apartment overlooking the sea. “When we have money, we are okay. But many Syrians here have no job or a house.”
Their main problem is that they do not feel welcome. “There is no respect. And the Lebanese earn from us,” Nawrez complains. Any time he has to go into town at night, he has to leave his ID with the local police guarding the area, and only gets it back after paying.
Nawrez and Nariman would like to leave Lebanon for Iraqi Kurdistan, even though that would mean starting all over again. But they cannot.
“Because of the birth of Fatma, we have to get our family book from Ain al Arab, and that is far too dangerous,” Nariman says. “We live in a prison,” Nawrez adds sadly.