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Beirut Champs-Elysees Sees Syria Refugee Despair: Cities

Syrian Woman Begs On Hamra Street
While immigration has transformed the social makeup of cities from Seattle to Seville in recent years, few places have seen anything like the influx in the Lebanese capital. Photographer: Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Aug. 26 (Bloomberg) -- A few steps from Brisk Cafe on Beirut’s Hamra Street, a teenage Syrian squats with her three children and cups her hand appealing for loose change. Along the road, a Syrian shoeshine boy urinates against a poster.

“This is not the Hamra Street we used to know,” said Mustapha Broush, the cafe’s supervisor. “We feel for the Syrian refugees, sympathize with them, but they have changed the character of this street.”

Imagine if everyone in Mexico spilled over the U.S. border and many ended up scratching for a living on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. That’s the scale of the human wave from war-torn Syria washing up on what was once known as the Middle East’s Champs Elysees, a magnet for wealthy Gulf Arab shoppers in the 1970s.

While immigration has transformed the social makeup of cities from Seattle to Seville in recent years, few places have seen anything like the influx in the Lebanese capital. Syrians now number more than 1.1 million in a country of 4.5 million people, making it the largest per-capita recipient of refugees in the world, according to the United Nations. Greater Beirut’s population is about 1.2 million, the World Bank estimates.

“It’s a scale of disruption that is hard to get your head around,” World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim told journalists in Beirut in June. “It’s the equivalent of having the entire population of Mexico entering the United States within a two- or three-year period and then integrating that population into your own school systems and health-care systems.”

Beirut Tinderbox

The friction on Hamra highlights rising tension among locals in a place that historically was a tinderbox, as Beirut became a byword for bombings and sectarian violence during a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. The crisis in Syria deepened with Islamic State militants seizing an air base from forces loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad.

Displaced from their homes with no means of securing basic necessities, Syrians shine shoes, pester café customers for a pound or two, or trail after shoppers to sell bouquets of wilted flowers.

Fatima Hasno, 16, the mother squatting a few feet from Brisk, said her husband sent her and their two children to Beirut four months ago after their home in Idlib was destroyed by shelling. She had her third child late July.

As her 2-year-old daughter slept on a dirty handbag and a blue towel, her 4-year-old son ran around barefoot. Mohammed Kuwayyes, a Bangladeshi supermarket worker, slipped 1,000 pounds (66 cents) in his hand. “I love children,” he said.

Seeking Escape

Hasno, whose husband stayed in Syria, makes $20 on a good day. “I hope things will change so I can get my children out of this poverty,” said Hasno, her hair covered with a black scarf.

Ismail Ghazzawi, 15, moved to Lebanon shortly after the Syrian conflict began in March 2011. In his southern hometown of Daraa, Ghazzawi, who has never been to school, made a living as a farm hand, growing cucumbers and tomatoes.

He now shines shoes on Hamra Street and sends $100 to $150 a month to his family back home. He’s been detained five times by police in the past three years for working without a permit. Each time, his box, which costs about $30, was confiscated. That hasn’t been enough to deter him from returning to the busy thoroughfare.

“I can’t stop work,” said the stocky, green-eyed blond. “I have a family back home in Syria to support.”

Raising Tension

The flow of the mostly Sunni Muslim Syrians risks upsetting the sectarian balance in a country where Christians, Sunnis and Shiites each roughly make up a third of the population. A raid by mostly Syrian fighters from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front in the border town of Ersal this month triggered several days of clashes with the Lebanese army. Some of the fighters were hiding among refugees.

The involvement of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah militia in the Syria war deepened those tensions. Lebanon has been shaken by a spate of bomb attacks since the group announced last year it was fighting alongside Assad.

“This is threatening the Lebanese social fabric, which is changing in favor of one group,” said Sami Nader, a professor of international relations at Beirut’s St. Joseph University. “This has the potential to be destabilizing.”

Unlike Turkey and Jordan, Lebanon hasn’t created formal camps for the refugees on concerns they would heighten sectarian tensions. The country already houses 455,000 mostly Sunni Palestinians in a dozen refugee camps.

Residential Centers

Instead, the Syrians have set up more than 1,720 residential centers, 400 of them in poor villages where there is daily friction with local residents, Labor Minister Sajaan Qazzi said in an interview.

The refugees are straining the dilapidated infrastructure, including electricity and water, which hasn’t kept up with local Lebanese demands. Many Syrian children have gone without an education for more than three years amid abject poverty, making them easy prey for groups like al-Qaeda.

Lebanese Prime Minister Tammam Salam said in June that his country needs support to “prevent the collapse of the economic structure.” Unemployment exceeds 20 percent and more than a third of crimes are committed by Syrians, Economy Minister Alain Hakim said in a May 28 interview.

According to figures published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on Aug. 21, there were 1.13 million registered refugees in Lebanon and 31,239 awaiting registration. Jordan and Turkey have taken in 1.43 million, the UN agency says.

Mass Migration

Not all have come to Lebanon because of security concerns, the government contends. “The influx of Syrians has become more of an immigration than a displacement,” Qazzi said, comparing it to Lebanese who seek jobs overseas.

Groups of Syrian laborers hang out on the city’s major intersections or under overpasses, waiting for jobs in construction. Others work as waiters, taxi drivers and porters. Some, like Fatima Hasno, can be seen begging on Hamra.

Mohammed Ammar, 16, who shines shoes, said while some Lebanese are generous, a few do not try to hide their hostility, using swear words to shoo him away. One time, he was kicked out of a restaurant when he went in with a Lebanese man who wanted to buy him a sandwich.

“The manager told me: ‘You’re a shoeshine boy. Go away,’” he said. “I felt alone and humiliated,” Ammar added before going to relieve himself in a nearby parking lot whose wall was plastered with posters promoting a concert in the ancient Roman city of Baalbek.

Ghassan Sayegh, a Lebanese attendant at the lot, said he’s had enough. “This place stinks like a urinal.”

Pointing to the door of a shack where he sometimes sits, he said: “I have to wash it, the walls and the ground every day.”

At the sidewalk restaurant Alia, manager Haidar Hammoud said one waiter has the duty every day to ensure beggars don’t pester his diners. “Their numbers have grown and they’ve become problematic,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Donna Abu-Nasr in Beirut at

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Hertling at Rodney Jefferson

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