A neat row of potted plants, all in bloom, greets visitors at the entrance of the Jassem family home in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Inside, decorative tassels dangle from the ceiling, with a golden-colored cloth is on display. Children play around foam mattresses resting on a clean-swept concrete floor.
It has the feel of a family home, but the Jassems are living in a plastic tent. They are refugees from Syria, which they fled five years ago, for a patch of ground in rural Lebanon.
Doha Jassem, who shares the shelter with her brother and his family, says they left their homes in Idlib, a northern province of Syria after the war came to their village. Bombings were happening around them and they were afraid for their children.
They have tried to start their lives over, but Lebanon doesn’t allow formal refugee camps. So the family have scrimped together what money they can to rent land and build a shelter. But, she says, they have been forced to move four times. On one occasion the Lebanese army told them they didn’t have the right land permit, and ripped down their tent.
That general feeling of insecurity has morphed into a real fear for their safety. Jassem plays a recording on her phone, and the children in the shelter crowd in to listen.
In the recording, a male voice calls for violence against Syrians on a specific date.
“In every area. In the street you’re on, in your building. Gather; gather amongst yourselves,” the voice says, his tone deliberate and cold. “Anyone who sees a Syrian, hit him. Hit him. Break him.”
Even though Jassem doesn’t know who was behind it, she believed the threats. She says it caused panic among the refugees in the informal settlement where they live.
“Syrians started sending this to each other to make sure no Syrian went out that day,” she says. “None of us even tried to step outside.”
Her daughter’s eyes well with tears. A young boy, no older than 3 years of age, picks up on the change in mood in the tent and starts to sob.
Across the country, refugees have reported feeling increasingly unsafe. And while attacks against them are mostly isolated incidents, aid agencies say they are increasingly concerned by a noted, hostile, shift in public opinion.
Feelings of resentment have hardened with politicians — who have an election coming up next year — playing to their electorates by calling on refugees to leave.
In a recent press conference, Samir Geagea, the leader of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian political party suggested asking Syrians not wanted by the Assad regime to return to parts of the country that Damascus controls. It would allow Lebanon to “get rid” of hundreds of thousands of refugees, he said.
Most of the main political groups have spoken out against the presence of Syrians in Lebanon. Nabil Kaouk, the deputy leader of Hezbollah’s Executive Council has said “the refugee crisis is choking Lebanon.” The war in neighboring Syria has sparked an influx of refugees into Lebanon equal to around one quarter of the country’s population. The United Nations has registered more than 1 million Syrian refugees, though the actual numbers are known to be much higher. In some towns in Lebanon, there are now more Syrians than Lebanese.
When Syrians first began to flee the war in 2011, many Lebanese opened their homes to them.
“There was a warm connection between Lebanese and Syrian people,” says Maria Assi, the CEO of Beyond Association, an NGO that helps Syrians in Lebanon. “Until now all the people around the world say the Lebanese people don’t treat the Syrian people well. When we are the only country in the world that received such a big number of refugees.”
Assi said the generosity of the Lebanese towards the refugee population is something that continues to this day. She blames the rise in hostility on a failure of the government and international aid agencies to put in place a long-term strategy to help the country adapt to the increase in population.
She says the enormous strain on the country’s already weak infrastructure is something that can no longer be ignored.
“Even the health clinics, or in the schools, now it’s more difficult,” she says. “Now there is even pollution in the rivers, because the wastewater from Syria has gone into them.”
With no end in sight for the Syrian war, Lebanese are facing the prospect that the influx might be permanent.
“It is not easy for Lebanese community to think Syrian refugees will stay,” Assi says. “No country accept. And no people around the world can accept.”
Tensions worsened this summer as the Lebanese government launched an offensive to push Syrian rebel groups away from the country’s border. But the government detained some 400 refugees living in a settlement near the town of Arsal in the process. Four men died in custody.
A video also began circulating widely of Lebanese men beating up a refugee on the street. They were arrested by the authorities. The hostility has become so intense that hundreds of Lebanese writers, poets and scholars have signed a petition of protest. “We started off as a reaction to what was happening,” said Makram Rabah, a political analyst and a history lecturer at the American University of Beirut.
Rabah said they wanted to take a “moral stand” against the persecution and assault of refugees. But he also warned that the attacks hurt Lebanon’s stability. Many Lebanese see echoes in today’s crisis of the conditions that bred the Lebanon’s civil war in 1975. That conflict was in part set off by clashes over tensions following an influx of Palestinian refugees.
Rabah is not predicting a return to civil war. But he warns that “instigating hatred” pushes people to extremes, and could drive some desperate refugees into the arms of extremist groups.
In the Bekaa valley, Jassem says her family has been directly attacked. One recent day she went with her husband and son to buy vegetables, when she says a man ran at them.
“We were riding my husband’s motorcycle and we had my son,” she says “[and] this man launched himself at the front of the motorcycle with a sickle.”
She said he swung at them and the blade hit the motorbike. Then they drove away as fast as they could saying, “We were so afraid.”
It’s not just street vigilantes the family is afraid of. One day, Jassem says, soldiers raided their tent. They had come to check permits, and only the women were home. She said they made them and their children wait hours in the hot sun.
Jassem believes the harassment was intended as warning. We’ll host you while your country is at war. But don’t think for a second that you’re welcome to stay.