BEIRUT – On a September morning, Miasar al-Suliman and his wife Hasna peek into their living room and retrieve some clothes, documents and a photo of their son. They do it quickly; the Beirut explosion blew off the walls of the old stone house and the water tank hangs in the remains of the roof threatening to collapse over their heads. Their house in the Karantina neighborhood sits barely 500 meters from Hangar 12 in the port of Beirut, where negligent storage of 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate shattered the Lebanese capital over a month ago.
Standing in front of their home-turned-rubble, Miasar takes from his pocket a treasured piece of paper: the appointment slip for the pregnancy check-up of his wife on August 4 at 11 am in a hospital on the other side of the city. The visit took longer than expected and then they decided to have late lunch at his brother-in-law's home nearby. They finished around 6 pm, minutes before the explosion. “If we hadn’t been in the hospital and then having lunch with [my wife’s] brother, we would all be gone,” says this 42-year-old, originally from the countryside of Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor province.
This Syrian family, though physically unscathed by the blast, is hit by a more silent shockwave: eviction.
Miasar used to work as a house cleaner earning 20,000 LBP per day (around $13 at the official rate exchange and $3 at the parallel market rate), but he has been unemployed for several months. The couple, who sought refuge in Lebanon in 2016, has six children and is expecting the seventh in less than a month. “We are hungry, we can’t even pay for oil. Sometimes the kids search the trash to eat, they are collapsing psychologically,” the father told Syria Direct.
They owe seven months of rent (400,000 LBP per month). The landlord, Miasar said, has been “patient” but prior to the explosion he had already told them to leave the house, although the eviction was never implemented. Then the Beirut explosion transformed their home in a maze of debris, serving as de facto eviction to them. “The house is ruined. But even if the house could be repaired, the landlord wouldn’t let us live here,” he said.
The family has temporarily moved with their in-laws to the outskirts of Beirut. “We are all sitting in one room, the rats are living better than us,” Miasar complained bitterly.
A spike in eviction rates
The Beirut blast is laying bare the increasing rate of evictions among Syrian households in Lebanon this year. In the first half of 2020, 27,410 Syrians were at risk of eviction and 4,613 individuals were evicted. This marks a drastic increase from 2019, where 8,649 Syrians were under eviction notice and 4,409 individuals were affected by collective evictions, per UN figures.
In previous years, evictions were mainly served by authorities due to security or environmental issues; like the evictions in Rayak for being too close to an airbase or in the settlements next to the Litani River. But this year, evictions are growing among Syrian families that no longer can afford rent.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, 90% of Syrians have lost their income or had their salaries reduced, 76% of those living in individual housing were unable to pay rent, a figure that rose to 81% for those in collective shelters, according to UN data.
“The Beirut explosion is going to further compound those pre-existing socioeconomic vulnerabilities, we are expecting that there will be an increasing risk of eviction,” Natasha Sax, Protection and Rule of Law Coordinator at International Rescue Committee (IRC), told Syria Direct. It is expected that some would go to cheaper housing or move to informal tented settlements, Sax added.
Some families are also being evicted from their tents in informal settlements. The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) mediated in the case of a 32-year old Syrian living in a settlement in the Beqaa Valley who was recently evicted. M.M. (pseudonym), was unable to pay the 800,000 LBP yearly rent fee since he lost his job as a construction worker nearly ten months ago. In addition, he accrued a 700,000 LBP debt to a grocery shop in the camp - proprietary of the landlord. Due to the unpaid amounts, the landlord evicted M.M. and his three family members. Ten days after, NRC mediated between them and the family was allowed to go back under the commitment of paying the debts on different installments.
Taking advantage of the blast to evict Syrian tenants
The Beirut blast blew the wall that separated the one-room home of Fatima (pseudonym) and her landlady’s house in Karantina. Fatima‒who is in her 9th month of pregnancy‒her husband and their 7-year-old son left the house so an NGO could repair it, but then the owner told them she does not want them back. “The landlady was nice to me. We had a very good relationship,” the 29-year-old Syrian woman, originally from the eastern Raqqa province, told Syria Direct.
They didn’t have a written lease agreement but a verbal agreement - like 97% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon.
The 600,000 LBP salary of Fatima’s husband who works as a truck driver at the port was meager but covered their 400,000 LBP rent. “With the situation with coronavirus, for three months we could not pay, but then we paid, even if it was little by little,” she added. Before the explosion, the landlady had never asked them to leave. Now the family is staying at Fatima’s brother’s home, also in Karantina.
A few blocks away, 28-year-old Waad Yasin al-Hariri sits nervously in the family living room that may soon not be theirs. “Two days ago, the landlord came and said he didn’t want the rent for September because at the end of the month he wants us out. We didn’t expect him to expel us like that, to be honest,” this mother of three told Syria Direct.
The house was affected by the blast and an NGO fixed the doors and windows. The family, originally from Syria’s southern Daraa province, has been living in the flat for years. Three years ago, they did some repairs in the bathrooms and windows with UN cash assistance. “We bought a water heater; we fixed the bathroom, we fixed this house,” Waad added.
Her husband has been working in the port and the fish market in Beirut for 16 years. Now the landlord says he wants his daughter to live here. “Where are we going to go?” she asked herself.
Fatima and Waad’s cases are not unique. The NRC has detected 20 cases of Syrian refugee households affected by eviction threats after the blast in the Karantina and Mar Mikhael neighborhoods alone. Lianna Badamo, Information Counseling and Legal Assistance at NRC, expressed concern that “some owners may want to repair and upgrade their properties, by themselves or with the help of NGOs, and this can lead to an increase in the rent so the tenants are not able to afford it, and they are evicted.”
“The blast should not be an opportunity to evict,” said Nadine Bekdache, co-founder of Public Works Studio, a non-commercial civil company concerned with housing rights. She argues that the government could issue a policy stating that “all people in the blast-affected-areas” have their “rental contract renewed automatically for the next five years,” and advocates that NGOs repair damaged houses “on the condition that the residents that were there come back.”
After the blast, the High Relief Commission, an aid agency in the Lebanese prime minister's office, asked citizens to give mukhtars (local elected officials) proof of ownership and damages on their apartments and announced that affected persons could begin the repairs at their own expenses provided they secure official invoices to be reimbursed later on. While some owners are rehabilitating their homes, “others may still be hesitant and are waiting for the Lebanese Army to visit them to be sure they can show the damages,” explained Badamo. On the same line, Fadel Fakih, Executive Director of the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), added that “landlords are afraid of fixing their houses and then not getting paid by the government, so they are waiting also. It is very important to speed up this process from the government side so the people can know what the procedure for this is.”
In the case of landlords unable to afford repairs, the options for tenants are limited. “The only thing tenants can do is to take any deposit that they had put with the landlord and try to move to another house,” said Fakih. If the property is uninhabitable due to the damages, the lease agreement can be terminated, but if it is still habitable, “the owner has the right to make repairs in a reasonable period of time and the tenant will remain bound to the rental agreement,” explained Badamo, adding that evictions “should follow legal procedures and due process should be ensured”. But in Lebanon, that is rarely the case.
Evicting second class citizens
Per Lebanese law, after three months of unpaid rent, the landlord can file a case for eviction and then the court has to issue an eviction order. But the precarious situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon leaves them “depending on the will of the landlord” and they are usually evicted via “extra-legal ways,” explained Bekdache.
Eighty-eight percent of Syrian refugees lack legal residency; that is, their existence is criminalized and they are at constant risk of detention. Thus, when threatened by eviction, few dare to complain to the same authorities they fear. “They are already worried about the landlord calling the police because of not having legal papers and getting into other trouble, so they just do as the landlord says,” said Fakih.
Most Syrians do not have a written lease contract, but “verbal agreements are still binding in Lebanon under law,” explained Sax. Despite that, “the large majority of evictions that we see don’t go through any formal process,” she added.
The CLDH has launched a hotline for tenants and landlords that have legal issues as a result of the explosion. The IRC has a team of lawyers mediating between families and landlords and they offer cash emergency assistance to defer rental payments. The NRC is providing counseling on housing rights plus cash for rent for those under threat of eviction. Between March-June 2020, its Collaborative Dispute Resolution team intervened in 127 cases, avoiding the eviction in 69% of the cases.
The battle to stay in Beirut
Experts fear that the post-blast reconstruction will lead to the same outcome seen after the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) and the reconstruction of downtown Beirut engineered by Solidere - the real estate company owned by the late PM Rafik Hariri, and later his family: a ghost city made up of shiny upscale buildings unaffordable for Beirut dwellers.
“I am indeed very concerned that the same pattern observed in Solidere, meaning investors purchasing apartments to store capital safely -rather than using the apartment as home and/or work area- can be replicated in the devastated districts,” said Mona Fawaz, Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut. She foresaw “scattered actors buying buildings one by one” leading to an array of “empty buildings being kept as assets until a change in the economy renders their occupation lucrative. In the meantime, their current residents -whether they are refugees, Lebanese, or migrant workers- will be evicted,” Fawaz warned.
The blast has put a spotlight on the endemic issue of evictions in Beirut. “It has been a very violent process for the residents; to be able to stay in Beirut is an everyday battle,” said Bekdache. Twenty percent of apartments in Beirut are empty, an “unacceptable” reality for this urbanist and designer who advocates for taxing vacant apartments and putting a cap on rent so the increasingly impoverished inhabitants of Beirut can afford them. The UN recently warned that 50% of the population in Lebanon might be at risk of failing to access basic food needs as a result of the economic crash.
“The main challenge is the collective impoverishment,” pointed out Fawaz, adding that while many migrant workers are returning to their home countries due to the crisis, “refugees cannot go back home, so they are caught in a society where their presence is criminalized, their labor reduced to menial categories.”
Caught up in this downward spiral, some small property owners have become increasingly dependent on the rent from their tenants to make ends meet. This growing pressure “on the landlords themselves to ensure that rental payments are met, has maybe resulted in an increase of evictions that we haven’t previously seen,” explained Sax.
Sax highlighted the hospitality of some Lebanese landlords in previous years. “Very frequently people are staying in their current housing with multiple payments not being met and landlords frequently accept to defer the payments and to lower the payments.” The economic debacle is “squeezing” society from many angles and the increasing eviction rates are “a symptom of a much greater disease: the socioeconomic collapse and the inadequate social-safety net for all groups in Lebanon,” she added.
Bekdache advocated for a program where impoverished landlords do not pay taxes “in exchange for offering affordable housing.” Professor Fawaz argued that “the main response should be cash for work, social protection measures, and similar initiatives that allow the families to pay rent‒particularly because most landlords are not so rich. The main problem is that public regulators don't care.”
The high school teachers facing eviction
One hundred kilometers north of Beirut, far from the explosion’s epicenter, a Syrian family is trapped in the silent shockwave of evictions. Abdulmenem al-Slaiman and his wife Rabiaa do not know if next month they can call their third-floor apartment in Halba home.
Back in their hometown of Homs, he taught Arabic Language and Islamic Studies and she taught history in a secondary school. The Syrian war displaced them and they have been living in Lebanon for seven years and a half with their three children.
Abdulmenem has volunteered with several NGOs and worked as a ‘perfume composer’ in a town next to Tripoli. In 2016, his son Jihad was sexually harassed in the street and the traumatic episode pushed the family to move to a center helping Syrians in Al-Kura (northern Lebanon), where they were offered free accommodation. “My children were at school, there were activities like football and swimming, and they learned English,” he explained.
But in 2019, “because of racism, a neighbor assaulted us,” he said while showing a video that he recorded of a man shouting at them. The Lebanese neighbors did not want Syrians in their area. “I know they know I had filmed them, so I was afraid,” he added. They decided to leave that town too and last February they moved to Halba where they currently live. Reporting the incident to authorities was out of the table, given that they lack legal residency. “I fear the army checkpoints in Lebanon.”
Once they settled in Halba, the family paid the first month of rent. One month later, COVID-19 hit Lebanon. Due to the lockdown restrictions, the landlord forgave the April rent and later reduced their rent from 300,000 to 250,000 LBP. “The landlord has a good heart but he is economically asphyxiated and has asked us to leave so he can get tenants that can pay rent,” Abdulmenem said. His landlord is a soldier and has seen his salary decimated by the devaluation of the Lebanese pound.
Abdulmenem has been unemployed for seven months, but they paid rent until they ran out of savings. Today they owe three months of rent. “He told me last month that this month will be our last month,” he said. The family sustains a debt of 900,000 LBP - 97% of Syrian households were indebted with an average debt of 2,000,000 LBP as of last May, per UN figures.
Abdulmenem shows dozens of calls on his phone to UNHCR. “Look, here, 30 minutes we talked, they tell me they will help, but they do nothing.” Earlier this year, the UN told them cash for rent was not an option at the moment and offered relocation in a shared shelter, which he says they rejected because it was far and they feared it would not be adequate for their children, but now under the imminent threat eviction, he says they would accept any option. “We’ve reached a stage where I am psychologically asphyxiated,” says this Syrian father who is receiving therapy via the Nassim Center of CLDH.
His brother lives in Spain as a refugee. When he speaks about how his nieces are learning a lot and are already fluent in Spanish his eyes light up. Then, he points at his three children: “We are not eating what we used to eat, we eat bread, potato and vegetables, I can’t afford chicken or meat for my children.”
When asked what they are going to do if they are evicted at the end of the month, the two teachers are out of words.
This report is part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy to Jordan's Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI).