Rethinking Hospitality towards Syrian Refugees in Lebanon
by Estella Carpi, University College London-Development Planning Unit & Save the Children-Humanitarian Affairs Team
The discourse of ‘hospitality’ has both informed and reinforced the international response to the mass influx of Syrian refugees into Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict. However, while unprecedented in scale – by the end of 2016 UNHCR had registered over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon – this is not the first ‘encounter’ between Syrians and the Lebanese population. Lebanon and Syria have a historically porous border, with towns and regions like Akkar in North Lebanon characterised by an ambivalent sense of Lebanese-Syrian nationhood, sharing moral, social, and political capital across the border. Nonetheless, a long-standing form of hospitality in such towns has paved the way for a process of differentiation from people who, until recently, were not “the Other.” It is legitimate to ask why this differentiation process, in a sense, needs to happen.
Hence, what is the sociology underlying such a need to differentiate oneself from the economy of the Syrian refugee, while paradoxically making space for it? In essence, as Derrida has argued, hosts must have power over the domain in which they host, as well as power over the guest. The tension remains, and a people’s collective morality is evaluated according to the accomplishment of charitable acts.
Historically, some Syrian nationals, in some ways, were also Akkaris, insofar as Akkaris themselves strived to get access to Syrian welfare, crossing the border to reach the nearby Syrian province of Homs rather than driving all the way down to Lebanon’s Tripoli to benefit from a scant welfare system. The lack of hospitals, schools, and means of transportation in North Lebanon has long since rendered this region hostile to comfortable inhabitation and detached it from a modern state that was originally crafted as Beirut-centric.
Hospitality, when spontaneously offered in the first months of the Syrian crisis, was in fact conceived at a grassroots level as a religious and cultural duty, a “sacred commandment of charity” to assign strangers a place in a community whose functioning was already guaranteed by demographically hybrid forces of labour. Indeed, the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an have many references to the commandment to shelter strangers, including refugees.
Since 2012, international humanitarian organizations have financed some local families to enable them to host the refugees temporarily. This has ended up “internationalizing” the historically unmediated Syrian-Lebanese relationship. With the intervention of the humanitarian agencies and the “neoliberalization” of local hospitality – by paying local families to host Syrian refugees for a limited period of time (usually over a maximum period of a year) -, hospitality has gradually become an aid toolkit item to be temporarily delivered. And yet, the sociological character of local hospitality does not fade away with the “humanitarianization” of the act of hosting, as the Albanian experience of hosting Kosovar refugees has proved.
Scholars and journalists alike have therefore used hospitality as a lens through which to understand the entanglement of Syrian-Lebanese relations over the past five and a half years. As such, it has repeatedly been defined as “limited” due to the massive influx of refugees, with Lebanon referred to as being “under strain.” In turn, socio-economic accounts of the prosperity of Lebanese landlords and employers and the increase in productivity thanks to lower workforce costs have sought to turn blame toward Lebanese greed.
Hospitality is also the narrative that local and international media and the humanitarian enterprise weave together. The idea of a “hosting Lebanon” is positioned in the space between historical truth and the necessity to maintain social order. In this sense, the idea delivered to the international public is that of a Lebanon strained by the “refugee crisis” per se, where the humanitarian structures, in concert with the central government, are efficient actors calming local tensions and flattening historical complexities by promoting accounts of generosity and victimhood.
The international humanitarian machine, which represents the Geneva-based international community, has contributed to internationalizing1 the Syrian conflict through programmes and policies.
The idea of generosity, hospitality, and its limits implicitly accuses the Syrians of having overstayed their welcome: it foregrounds the chronic predicament of the Akkar region, the decrease in local employment due to the presence of cheaper menial labour, and the increase in the cost of living and housing owing to the newcomers’ influx. Discourses of greed or grievance, as sparking enduring conflicts and war economies in the Middle East, are growing louder and louder, and have gradually silenced more important narratives.
At a historical-material level, local communities, whatever their social status, attempt to protect wealth accumulation or basic livelihoods through the act of hosting, either for free or for rent to be able to host. That being said, in a country where intermarriage has always been a common social practice, why are Syrian nationals increasingly being mistreated, to the extent that they are now trying to change their accent in order not to be marked as “Syrian refugees” and undergo discrimination? In Lebanon, the process of “othering” the Syrians took place during the process of refugeehood, as an improvised way both of dealing with the influx and of marking the territory as theirs: to manage and control “the home.”
In a geopolitical scenario officially declared to be a “state of emergency,” safeguarding the home comes into play as an in-crisis strategy of local self-determination. This has led local Akkaris to reinvent their relationship to the pre-existing presence of Syrian nationals in response to the announced crisis.
In this way, in-crisis hospitality has produced spaces to which some inhabitants belong—insofar as their sense of belonging has been reinforced by their act of hosting—while others do not and instead are turned into temporary guests. Indeed, before the crisis, Syrian nationals used to inhabit the same space mostly in the capacity of unskilled cheap laborers, marking the continuity of the sovereign Akkari host-lord. In this sense, the social construction of hospitality has not only fed the political rhetoric of “Lebanon the bountiful” but has also acted as a force of societal fragmentation, undermining the previous relations that these laborers used to hold in Akkar before moving to Lebanon with their own families due to the full-scale conflict.
In other words, as a form of unwilling humanitarianism, hospitality made the traditionally porous borders between Lebanon and Syria socially meaningful. The collective act of producing an outside has served the purpose of Lebanese Akkaris to prevent the spillover of violence and preserve relative social order. The absence of a well-bounded “Syrian community” in Akkar, “melting like sugar in tea,” has facilitated the task of “othering” the refugees.
* An expanded version of this piece, entitled Against ontologies of hospitality: About Syrian refugeehood in northern Lebanon, was first published by the Middle East Institute.
 In a speech at the Wilson Centre, Antoine Chedid, Lebanon’s ambassador to the United States, rejected the specifically Lebanese responsibility of a conflict that is increasingly becoming regional by pointing out that the crisis is not of their making; rather, it is international.