Syrian and Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon and the Emergent Realities of Return

For displacement-affected communities, ideas of return rest on a set of hopes and identities that are frustrated by geopolitical realities. In this piece, Helen Adams explores how long-term coping strategies are inhibited by frequently-obstructed relationships to place amongst refugee communities affected by the Syrian crisis in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. These communities are left to negotiate their futures in the face of the hostility of the Lebanese state, and the insecurity that surrounds their futures as Syrians and/or Palestinians. For more on this topic, see the suggested readings at the end of this piece, and follow the Refugee Hosts blog for regular updates.

Syrian and Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the emergent realities of return

By Helen Adams, Department of Geography, King’s College London

Last summer (2017), interviews I conducted with refugees and host communities – including Palestinian refugees – in the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, revealed how refugees had strong and negative emotional reactions to their lives in Lebanon. Feelings of solace and home were still attached to Syria. In particular, bonds to place take the form of a nostalgia for a symbolic Syria that exists only in the past.

In July this year, I returned to re-interview my participants and found that attitudes to home and place had changed. In Lebanon, the government has created a hostile environment for refugees, preferring that their stay in the country is temporary. In recent months, the political discourse has moved towards compulsory return, based on the idea that, since the conflict in Syria has somewhat abated, there is no reason for refugees to stay. Refugees in informal settlements had been asked by the Lebanese government to register their biometric data with the authorities and declare whether they wanted to return. Thus, many of the respondents talked about Syria differently from last year: it seemed like nostalgia and longing had been replaced by the recognition of what life would be like on return. Below is a quote from 2017 – it seemed now that people could no longer avoid thinking about the future.

I imagine that we will all unite again and that our home will be rebuilt and we would live a normal life, just like our life was in the start. We don’t want to think for the future, what will we do, no; we only want to think a bit about the past…

By summer 2018, refugees were scared by the bleak choice that faced them; return to an unknown insecure future or remain in a place where they would never be welcome. The political and social situation in Lebanon has degraded over the past year and feelings of fear, desperation, injustice and resentment on all sides have intensified. This year, many of the locals with whom we spoke voiced a much stronger anti-refugee sentiment. Whether this was indeed a strengthening of feeling, or more of a license to speak about refugees in this way because of the political climate, is unclear. Perhaps it was because they felt they could be more open on my second visit. Some people expressed dismay that the refugees (in their eyes) were coping and even thriving; their independence and agency was experienced as an insult to the hospitality and tolerance of the Lebanese (this ties into idea of the good and bad migrant found in UK discourses over migration). The refugees themselves spoke of how they increasingly avoided public spaces to limit confrontation with locals. Theft and muggings were reported as an everyday occurrence. Refugees were caught in a choice between increased hostility in Lebanon, and navigating the complexities of return to Syria.

Some people had given up on the idea of return: it was now the lesser of two evils to live in the hostile environment of Lebanon. Others wanted to return but felt trapped by the impossibility of it. One woman who was living in extreme poverty, barely surviving with her sick husband and three children, cried at the frustration of thinking of return. As much as she wanted to leave, “You need money to return” she said, “I’d live in a tent on our land but you have to have money to rebuild your life again”. Other people were positive about return: “When the road opens, I’ll be the first one there”. Some were concerned about the lack of infrastructure and utilities – where would the water and electricity come from?

A lack of savings, spent already escaping Syria and surviving in Lebanon, and no way to earn money, were a barrier to return. Another was personal safety and political stability. People do not know the kind of political regime that they would be stepping back into, and how security would be guaranteed before the rule of law was re-established. Even those respondents who were positive about return showed a cautiousness, a need for patience, so that they could see what happens before rushing into an unknown political situation with emergent power dyanmics.

For our Palestinian Syrian respondents, thoughts of compulsory return were complicated by global politics on Palestine that had important implications for their everyday well-being. The US government’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the withdrawal of funding for UNWRA had made the everyday lives of the Palestinians even more insecure and their future return less likely. Thus, since last summer, there was an increased sense of political consciousness and a greater drawing on the Palestinian dimension of their place identity. Regarding Syria, one women said: “There’s nothing for me there now.” She wanted to put her efforts instead into returning to Palestine: “The fight would be no less difficult than returning to Syria,” she said. Another Palestinian Syrian told us that now he was preparing his children not for return to Syria, but for return to Palestine.

If emotional bonds to places contribute to our identity and psychological well-being, living without them makes a person less able to face challenges and difficulties. A secure base from which to start is fundamental to any successful endeavour. The hostile environment created for refugees in Lebanon intentionally obstructs positive relationships to place. An unintended consequence is that these actions simultaneously undermine the ability of refugees to return.

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Featured image: excerpt from ‘A narrow path can fit a thousand bicycles’, a graphic novel based on Helen’s research project: “Nostalgia and Solastalgia in Lebanon’s Refugee and Host Communities

Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blog:

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon Face an Uncertain 2017

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) ‘Employment and Pension Rights in the Context of the Localisation of Aid Agenda

Lokot, M. (2018) ‘Mobility, Hope and the ‘Appropriation’ of Space: Reflections from a Photovoice Project

Loris-Rodionoff, C. (2017) ‘Hope, Resilience and Uncertainty: A Day with Displaced Syrians in Turkey

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Refugees are Dialectical Beings Part One and Part Two

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2018) ‘The Hands are Hers

Rowlands, A. (2018) ‘Turkey – Crossroads for the Displaced

Stonebridge, L. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Time Machine: Stereoscopic Views from Palestine, 1900

Wafai, J. (2018) ‘Al-Mustaqubal in the Space of Refuge

Zbeidy, D. (2017) ‘Widowhood, Displacement and Friendship in Jordan

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