[Published here on May 13, 2014]
Abdul Samih, his wife Fidan, and his five children live in a small, shabby apartment in the St. Simon neighborhood of southwest Beirut. To reach his tiny home, he weaves through narrow alleyways of Hezbollah flags, martyrdom posters, and burly Lebanese men looking on suspiciously at him. Not only is Abdul Samih a Syrian refugee, but he is ethnically Kurdish – making him double the outsider for many Lebanese.
Kurds in Syria make up between 10 and 15 percent of the country’s population, largely concentrated in the northern and northeastern provinces. Systematic discrimination by the Baathist regimes in Syria left many within the Kurdish community without Syrian citizenship. As the Syrian crisis drags on, fighting in ethnically Kurdish areas between the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Al-Qaeda offshoot the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has been intensifying, prompting larger refugee flows out of Syria. Though many have chosen to seek refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, at least tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees have crossed into Lebanon.
Like others who have escaped the Syrian crisis, Abdul Samih speaks wistfully of the land and memories he left behind. “Our situation in Syria was good: we had our trees, I had my job… But all of a sudden, everything was gone. The cars, our belongings, our land,” he said. “They cut our trees down, and our agricultural land has become a battlefield.”
Abdul Samih and his family arrived in Lebanon from the Achrafieh neighborhood of Aleppo over a year ago. Since then, he’s cumulatively worked for a total of five weeks and has used up most of his savings from Syria to pay the monthly $300 rent for his family’s cramped apartment. As she cradles her infant child – born a refugee in Lebanon – Fidan says that work is nearly impossible to come by, and her children work menial jobs to offset the family’s expenses instead of going to school.
Like many Syrian Kurds, neither Abdul Samih nor Fidan have Syrian citizenship, complicating the registration process with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which coordinates international efforts for Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
“If they don’t have official documentation, they might have something like a hospital paper in Syria, a school paper, anything that matches the story of where they’re from,” Joelle Eid, UNHCR’s public information associate, told NOW. “Or they name the streets and alleyways of the neighborhoods that only a resident of Syria would know.” UNHCR has no statistics on how many Kurds are among the over one million Syrian refugees now residing in Lebanon.
Despite living in a “secure” neighborhood – Abdul Samih told NOW that Hezbollah checkpoints are often set up in the area – he and his family aren’t happy in Lebanon. Part of the problem, he says, is the isolation he feels from the rest of Lebanese society – Kurdish or otherwise. On the one hand, Abdul Samih says that he always tells people he’s Kurdish, not Syrian, because “people hate Syrians here.” Discrimination against Syrians in Lebanon has been increasing as refugee numbers swell.
On the other hand, Abdul Samih doesn’t feel welcomed by Lebanon’s own Kurdish community. “Our system as Kurds is tribal – if we don’t go to three or four different houses per day for visits, it doesn’t make sense to us!” he says, while insisting on pouring a third cup of juice for NOW’s reporter in the sweltering heat. But Lebanon’s Kurdish community isn’t as tight-knit or supportive, he said.
“The Syrian Kurds here are pretty much on their own,” said Lokman Meho, a Lebanese Kurd and the director of university libraries at the American University of Beirut. He said the Lebanese Kurdish community, which he estimated to number between 75,000 and 100,000, has historically been weakened by lack of education and decades of disunity among the different tribes. In Lebanon’s sectarian system, Kurds are all considered Sunni Muslim and have assimilated fully into Lebanese society, and the focus on learning the Kurdish language and maintaining a sense of Kurdish identity began to diminish. “In 20 years, if the lack of communication between Kurdish communities continues like this, you will rarely find any person of Kurdish background in Lebanon who knows Kurdish,” Meho told NOW.
When asked whether Lebanon’s Kurds feel like a forgotten community, Abdul Samih and Fidan began nodding enthusiastically. They told NOW they dream of leaving Lebanon to move to the Kurdish region of Iraq, where their neighbors from Syria have settled. “I’ve been dreaming of going there for 20 years,” Abdul Samih said.
But for now, despite escaping the violence of his hometown, Abdul Samih says he still lives everyday battles. Looking around his shabby apartment, he sighs.
“Everything is war. Hunger is war. Poverty is war.”