Lebanese masked gunmen from the al-Muqdad clan parade in Beirut's southern suburbs on August 15
Lebanese masked gunmen from the al-Muqdad clan parade in Beirut's southern suburbs on August 15. When doctor Nada Ekhwon and her husband fled Damascus for Lebanon, they were relieved to find safety away from the bloodshed at home. But a spate of mass kidnappings of Syrians in Beirut has forced them to think again. © - AFP/File
Lebanese masked gunmen from the al-Muqdad clan parade in Beirut's southern suburbs on August 15
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Alison Tahmizian Meuse, AFP
Last updated: August 19, 2012

Middle class Syrians in limbo in Lebanon

When doctor Nada Ekhwon and her husband fled Damascus for Lebanon, they were relieved to find safety away from the bloodshed at home. But a spate of mass kidnappings of Syrians in Beirut has forced them to think again.

"You know last night we were afraid to go out. We heard the news and thought it's better to stay inside," Ekhwon said after the reports of the kidnappings and other attacks on Syrians in retaliation for events in Syria.

On Thursday, the smartly dressed doctor started looking for plane tickets to Cyprus, where her parents have their home.

But after a trip to the office of Lebanon's national carrier Middle East Airlines she became more anxious. "There is no place on the plane. From today until one week from now it's full... and we don't know what will happen by then."

The Lebanese government seemed powerless to control its own streets last week as an armed Shiite Muslim clan claimed it had kidnapped around 20 Syrians, while many more were reportedly seized as rioters went on a rampage in Beirut.

Violence has spilled over into Lebanon from neighbouring Syria in recent months, with shelling by the Syrian army and cross-border shootings, as well as Syria-related clashes between Lebanese gunmen in the northern port city of Tripoli and Beirut.

But the mass kidnappings have stoked more fears among middle class Syrians in Lebanon than any other violence in the small Mediterranean country, leading some to call via Facebook on fellow Syrians in Beirut to "stay home" and to "avoid areas where violence could break out."

Several oil-rich Gulf countries have ordered their nationals -- who often vacation in Lebanon -- to leave the country immediately in the face of threats, particularly against Saudis and Qataris whose governments are staunch opponents of the Syrian regime.

The US and Turkey have also issued travel warnings to their citizens.

The latest unrest fanned fears the 17-month Syria conflict could further destabilise Lebanon, already coping with an influx of about 47,000 refugees from across the border and itself no stranger to civil war.

The UN refugee agency in Lebanon said some Syrian refugees -- with the middle class filling the hotel rooms and apartments left vacant by Gulf visitors -- have expressed fears they could be targeted for their nationality.

"One family living in the Beirut suburbs said their apartment block was surrounded by armed men earlier this week and they hid on the roof. They have since moved elsewhere," spokeswoman Ariane Rummery told AFP.

Middle and upper class Syrians in Lebanon are far from destitute refugees, but they are also not on vacation, and are anxious to find a stable place to resume their livelihoods.

It is increasingly clear for many of them that Lebanon is not the place.

Nada and her husband are doctors, but neither has been able to secure a work permit in Lebanon.

"It's been six months that we haven't worked," she says. "The time goes and we are spending our savings here just on daily life."

As she continued her search down a cafe-lined street in central Beirut, well-heeled women passed by in summer dresses, shopping bags in hand, lending a semblance of normalcy.

"Maybe the Lebanese don't feel how we do," she sighs.

But after leaving behind their medical clinics amid shelling attacks in the central Syrian city of Homs, and later fleeing Damascus, any instability in Lebanon is cause for anxiety.

At another Beirut travel agency, two clean-cut young Syrians waited to find out plane schedules -- and visa requirements for Dubai.

"I have a British passport, but he's pure Syrian," Sam says, pointing to his cousin, a university student in Beirut.

Mohamed, 21, wants to visit a relative in Dubai to see what his future might hold in case the situation in Lebanon deteriorates.

"If things break loose, I'll go then. But I have to get a visa first," he says.

Mohamed is not alone: "All of my friends from high school are here. They are going through the same thing."

His father is still working in Damascus, but he hopes to join his mother in the United States, if he can manage to get a visa or asylum.

"Everyone is looking to get out of the Middle East."

For Ahmed, another young Syrian living in Beirut, this violence only added to uncertainty over his long-term prospects in a country where daily life borders on exorbitant.

"I'm going to wait two or three days and hopefully things will be clear," he says.

But if the instability continues, he will leave for Turkey or Egypt, which he visited in July to scope out job prospects.

His family still lives in the upper class district of Barzeh in Damascus. Despite the fact that they have been unable to run their business, they are dragging their heels at the prospect of uprooting. "They are refusing to be refugees," he says.

In a word, Lebanon is "limbo", says Jamal, a 26-year-old photographer who has been going back and forth between his home Damascus and the couches of old friends in Beirut since the revolt broke out in March of last year.

His father and sister are still in Syria, debating whether to lock up the family home and join Jamal in Lebanon, or relocate to the stability of Abu Dhabi, where he grew up.

"In Lebanon the Internet is terrible, the electricity goes out all the time. Here you will never get your money's worth," he says.

He is considering leaving the region entirely to do his photography degree in London until the situation in Syria settles down.

"I haven't worked in a year and a half. I'm wasting my time in Lebanon and just spending money."

It's "not hell precisely, but as close as it gets."

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