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SOUTHERN LEBANON – The rubble of crushed cinderblocks and other building refuse crunches underfoot as Tariq Talib, a Lebanese field officer with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), walks through the unfinished third-floor apartment, peering into its four rooms, three-page checklist and pen in hand.
He turns to the apartment's 23-year-old owner, a man called Abed. "If you agree, we will put Syrian families here," he says.
Talib rattles off a laundry list of improvements his organization would fund to make the space livable. They included buying and placing doors, fitting windows and aluminum shutters, laying the plumbing and electrical wiring, tiling the bathroom floor, and installing a water tank, shower, toilet, bathroom and kitchen sinks and their fixtures. (As of the end of August 2013, the NRC had housed almost 45,000 Syrians in Lebanon using this approach.)
Abed, a local council worker in this southern Lebanese village of Maaroub, nods his assent. In exchange for the improvements to his apartment, up to 20 Syrian refugees would live in the space for a year - rent free.
"It's a good thing," Abed says. "On the one hand, they help me finish the apartment, and on the other hand, I help Syrians. It's better than them living in the street."
It's a creative arrangement, made necessary by Lebanon's refusal to allow official Syrian refugee camps. Instead, the burden of finding other forms of shelter for the country's almost 732,000 refugees has fallen on the United Nations, dozens of non-governmental organizations and local host communities. It's a huge task in this tiny country of 4 million people, where every fourth person is now a Syrian (not all of the more than 1 million Syrians in Lebanon are registered refugees).
Lebanon's intransigence is explained by its own history and deep polarization. Lebanese are split, as they have been since the end of the French mandate and the creation of the modern state in 1943, over the issue of Syria. Some Lebanese have always believed that the post World War I carve-up of the Ottoman Empire created two countries out of one, and that Lebanon is part of Greater Syria. Nationalists dispute this.
But in more recent times, the fault line has been the Syrian regime itself – with some Lebanese factions supporting President Bashar al-Assad and others aligned against him. Like most things here, that split is sharply sectarian. On one side are the Shia parties Hezbollah and Amal, and Christian factions who support Assad. On the other is an anti-Assad coalition of Sunnis, Druze and rival Christians.
The anti-Assad camp's list of grievances is long, stemming from Syria's domineering 29-year military presence in Lebanon even after the civil war ended in 1990. It was only under immense local and international pressure that the Syrians withdrew in 2005, following the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri, which had been widely blamed on the Assad regime and its local allies.
So how does Lebanon's polarization over the Assad regime translate into a refusal to allow Syrian refugee camps? Fear of repeating Lebanon's experience with refugees from its southern neighbor, Israel, may have something to do with it.
Lebanon still hosts more than 400,000 Palestinian refugees and their descendants in a dozen squalid, overcrowded camps that are outside the purview of Lebanese security.
In the 1970s, Palestinian guerrilla groups uprooted from Jordan during that country's bloody Black September crackdown reestablished themselves in Lebanon. The influx strained Lebanon's perennially fragile confessional-sectarian political system. The tensions were made worse because the Palestinian fighters established insurgent bases and turned parts of southern Lebanon and the Bekaa into "Fatahland," a lawless area from which they launched attacks against Israel. Some Lebanese supported the Palestinian militants and fought alongside them; others did not. That split helped catalyze the 15-year Lebanese civil war, which ended in 1990.
Today, Hezbollah is the most powerful force in Lebanon and Assad's key ally, openly and actively fighting alongside the Syrian military against the rebels. It doesn't want a return to some version of "Fatahland" in Lebanon. In fact, Hezbollah's leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has said that the Lebanese should take their disputes about Syria into that country and "fight about it over there" to "keep Lebanon out of it."
His deputy, Naim Qassem, has made it clear why the party opposes formally settling those fleeing Syria: "We cannot accept refugee camps for Syrians in Lebanon because any camp... will become a military pocket that will be used as a launch-pad against Syria and then against Lebanon," he has said.
Syrian refugees that make it to Lebanon have to find shelter where they can. The first waves of mainly Sunni Syrians crossed into the northern Lebanese, largely Sunni and fiercely anti-Assad region of Wadi Khaled relatively early in the two-and-a-half year conflict. Many had blood ties to the region, and were housed in relatives' homes, local schools and mosques.
But private homes and public buildings are no longer sufficient to soak up the flood of Syrians streaming across the border. Refugees are now everywhere, not just among their co-religionists in anti-Assad strongholds. They're also in little towns and villages like Maaroub, in southern Lebanon, that are largely Shia and pro-Assad.
There are 74 Syrian refugee families in the town, according to Abed, the apartment owner. He should know. His job at the local council is to register the details of Syrian refugees in the area, so that -- among other things -- aid organizations delivering relief know where to find them.
"Everybody here is with President Assad and almost all of the refugees are against him," Abed says as Talib, the Norwegian Refugee Council officer, pulls out a yellow tape measure to size up the doors and windows of his property. "Many people say 'let them sit here, it's better than them fighting in Syria against the president.'"
Paying back in kind
There is another reason why some pro-Assad supporters in the south have accepted Syrian refugees, regardless of their political affiliation. "They hosted us in the 2006 war, so we should host them," Abed says, referring to that year's month-long conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.
A short drive away, along roads lined with the canary yellow flags of Hezbollah and the vibrant green of the Amal Movement (as well as a few portraits of Assad), is Bazouriye, noted for being the hometown of Hezbollah's secretary general, Nasrallah. A portrait of the late Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini is posted at the town's entrance.
The head of the local municipal council, Ali Srour, says 350 Syrian refugee families are being hosted in this town of about 15,000. It's a sleepy agricultural area where most families work the 80 or so citrus orchards nearby. It's so sleepy and poor that, like many villages in southern Lebanon, many of its people have migrated to make a living -- at least 10 percent of them permanently, according to Srour. Another 20 to 25 percent live overseas but maintain homes in the town.
Al Jazeera's Alia Malek profiles a U.S.-based businessman Yakzan Shishakly, who became the director of a sprawling camp of 25,000 Syrian refugees living in 4,000 tents on a few square miles on the Syria-Turkey border.
The refugee influx has put pressure on the town's already dilapidated infrastructure and public services, including the electricity grid which -- like the rest of Lebanon -- experiences daily blackouts, the local sewage network, and even trash collection. "We cannot handle any more," Srour says of the Syrian refugees. "It is putting a big strain on the town because their needs and wants are above the abilities of the council, and we have not budgeted for it."
The council, like many others, is trying to make do by working with NGOs like the Norwegian Refugee Council, as well as United Nations peacekeepers in the area who occasionally set up mobile medical clinics to treat refugees and dispense pharmaceuticals.
Still, Srour doesn't think official camps would help. "If you make small camps, or gatherings that become cantons, and put tents on them, is that it? What about their maintenance? Their infrastructure, their security? How much will it cost? Is it worth it? If it's for a few weeks, they'd be better off staying in five-star hotels, it's probably cheaper. If it's going to be permanent like the Palestinian camps, this needs a political decision from the government."
No such decision is expected at the moment, however.
A lot of pressure
The UNHCR's Dana Sleiman says that integrating Syrian refugees into host communities is preferable for many reasons, not least because apartments are better than tents; because an isolated refugee camp can stigmatize and isolate its inhabitants; and because camps are expensive to maintain. Still, the hosting capacity in Lebanon, especially with regard to shelter, "is very stretched at the moment," Sleiman says.
In addition to NRC's approach of rehabilitating empty buildings, other NGOs are working on making livable non-residential spaces such as disused abattoirs or even chicken farms. Others simply provide cash for rent, an approach some in Lebanon blame for rent inflation. There are also more than 380 "informal tented settlements" on private land, Sleiman says. Just don't call them camps.
The settlements have mushroomed in an ad-hoc fashion and usually lack such basics as a water supply, electricity and sanitation – problems the UNHCR and its partners are trying to remedy, but they can't protect refugees from other problems such as landowners charging as much as $100 per month in rent for pitching a tent.
The pressure on resources here is likely to get worse if or when the battle for the Syrian capital Damascus kicks off in earnest, or U.S. military strikes take place -- Lebanon is the closest refuge for those looking to flee the fighting.
The UNHCR and aid organizations are trying to mitigate the burden on host communities by improving the infrastructure in Lebanese towns and villages. The NRC's approach is to put money back into the local communities. "We specify a list of works to be done and costs [in an unfinished building], and sign a contract with the building owner," says Roger Dean, the NRC's shelter program manager. "We give the owners the money to do it, so they organize the tradesmen, they supervise the work themselves, they are very much in control of what happens in their building. It also means that the money is ultimately recycled through local tradesmen so it stays very much within the community that we're working in," he says.
The program has shown some positive results. Some 88 percent of the people NRC has sheltered have managed to stay in the same units beyond the one-year contract, Dean says. "That means that in most cases they will have developed a little bit of a household economy, and they'll have established themselves a little bit in the community and built relationships," he says.
Still, it's a delicate situation. Srour, the local council head in Bazouriye, says that he knows most of the families his pro-Hezbollah town has taken in are anti-Assad. "We don't ask that question, but we know from the way they are talking," he says. In general, there's no trouble, he adds, but "occasionally something flares up." Srour has asked some Syrian refugees to leave, although he wouldn't state how many. "I'm talking about people with bad manners, not bad politics," he says. "I'm not obliged to put up with that."
The Lebanese in general, and southerners in particular, know what it's like to flee war, Srour explains. "We know what it means to find somebody who at a bare minimum can stand with you and understand your pain. They [Syrians] took us in in the past, in 2006. We would have preferred to repay them in a war with the enemy [Israel], not like this," he added, acknowledging Hezbollah's role in the Syrian civil war. "May God return them to their homes soon. There is a lot of pressure."