BEIRUT — Since the August 4 blast, Beirut’s streets are a stage for the daily choreography of grassroots solidarity: volunteers clean up rubble, doctors dress wounds and engineers repair shattered homes. But there are discordant notes. One morning, in the Mar Mikhail neighborhood, a man in a tent offering food baskets started yelling at a young Syrian woman who had seemingly approached the area seeking aid. 

Although most of the grassroots initiatives have been helping the victims of the explosion regardless of their nationality, some discriminatory behaviors against non-citizens have been reported. “We have witnessed some discrimination from individuals or organizations in which they request people to prove that they are Lebanese so they can assist them,” Chrystine Mhanna, a Communication Officer at the Lebanese Center for Human Rights, told Syria Direct.

Over 200,000 Syrian refugees reside in Beirut and the affected surrounding areas. The UN is offering immediate support to 84,000 people “affected by the blast and in need of urgent support – including Lebanese, refugees and migrants,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, UNHCR spokesperson. So far, out of the 4,458 weatherproofing kits for damaged houses that have been distributed, 25% of the beneficiaries have been Syrian.

Beirut faces a $4.6 billion bill in damages to physical stock, 152,000 persons are in need of protection services, and 200,000 houses have been affected by the explosion - of which 3,000 are severely damaged, according to UN  and World Bank figures. 

Almost $300 million were pledged at the International Donor Conference while the UN quoted aid costs at $344.5 million in their last appeal. “The pledges fall short of what is needed, and the funding needs to fall through much faster than is currently the case,” explained Elena Dikomitis, Advocacy Adviser at Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC). This organization estimates that in the first three months $84.6 million are needed for shelter assistance but so far only $1.9 million have been disbursed. They are assessing possible shortages of materials for repairs in the coming weeks. “For the repairs of the partially damaged houses we can still work but when the larger works start this might become a challenge,” Dikomitis told Syria Direct.

Abdulhamid Ahmad Abdullah stands next to the cracked wall of his kitchen in the Karantina neighborhood, 27/08/2020 (Syria Direct)

In his home in Karantina, Abdulhamid Ahmad, a 38-year-old originally from Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor province, stares at the cracked wall of his kitchen. Several NGOs, he told Syria Direct, have come to his house to assess his family needs. “Today it has been 20 days and our house is in the same state, nothing happened, they just gave us food baskets,” added the father of five. Asked if he, as a Syrian, had felt discrimination during aid distribution, he shrugged: “Some people discriminate, some do not.”

The equation of structural collapse

A street in Karantina, one of the most affected neighborhoods by Beirut port blast, 27/08/2020 (Syria Direct)

“This is a political catastrophe that occurs in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the midst of an economic and financial collapse,” explained Carmen Geha, activist and Associate Professor of Public Administration at the American University of Beirut. The Lebanese pound has lost 78% of its value and last July the food basket saw inflation of 141% compared to July 2019.

The UN warned this week that “over 50 percent of the population in Lebanon might be at risk of failing to access basic food needs by the end of 2020.” Extreme poverty rates have soared to 23% and food insecurity was already taking its toll before the explosion, especially among vulnerable populations like Syrian refugee communities

To stabilize the price of bread, the World Food Program has shipped 12,500 metric tons of wheat flour, trying to offset the destruction of the grain silos at the port – whose container terminal is now operating at 30%. More than 50,000 hot meals/ready-to-eat meals have been distributed since the blast. “The food security needs have received the most funding so far so a lot of the immediate needs have been addressed. However, this doesn’t mean that people will not be in need after this immediate response, especially in vulnerable communities; very poor Lebanese, Syrians and migrant workers, who were already struggling to buy basic food items,” alerted Dikomitis.

The Achilles’ heel of the grassroots movement

A group of volunteers walks in the streets of Karantina doing repair work in damaged houses, 27/08/2020 (Syria Direct)

Underneath the hopeful image of young people carrying brooms sweeping the streets, lies a dysfunctional state. At the Prime Minister’s Office, “there is supposed to be a Disaster Risk [Management] unit, funded by the UNDP [UN Development Program] for the last 20 years, that is completely dysfunctional,” said Geha who described the volunteer efforts as “a continuation of the protest movement that started in October [2019].”  

“We won the first battle: the international community is now aware that the Lebanese government cannot receive aid because of so much corruption,” she said, adding that to avoid a Syria-like scenario “where aid made state institutions saviors,” activists need to “create a human rights framework that makes this aid go towards people.” 

Geha, who is part of the collective Khaddit Beirut (Shake Up Beirut) revealed that their target now is the “fleet of NGOs that are sectarian” and were created by Lebanese politicians. Lebanese factions will deploy “organizations posing as ‘civil society’ partners while attempting to stash loyalists within UN agencies and INGOs,” warned the think tank Synaps on Twitter. “In some instances, Lebanese actors have been reticent to extend support to non-Lebanese victims of the blast, such as Syrian refugees. Over time, such competition risks fueling animosity between various constituencies,” Synaps added. 

Based on the assessment of the situation of 280 families in Karantina, the NRC found that 30 percent of the Syrian refugee respondents were subjected to at least one form of violence compared to 7.64% of their Lebanese counterparts. Out of the six respondents who had suffered physical violence, five were Syrian, and 25 of the 28 respondents subjected to verbal violence were Syrian. “This type of disaster exacerbates all those underlying tensions. On the field, there is a lot of solidarity but there are incidents happening. Being a minority at this point in time also means that existing stereotypes are amplified, which seems to also impact the vulnerable communities’ access to in-kind distributions,” said Dikomitis.

Dar Al Mussawir, a photography space, denounced on social media that a woman in a tent in Gemmayze neighborhood refused to give soft drinks to non-Lebanese. Some community leaders “have positioned themselves as coordinating the distribution process in the affected areas and are distributing the aid only to certain groups that have the same political, religious or national background,” said Zeinab Ramadan, NRC’s Protection Coordinator. Zeinab witnessed an incident where a local organization was distributing food “without having any eligibility criteria or without proper planning,” and a Lebanese man “started to shout at refugees, trying to push them back and saying that this assistance is only for Lebanese.”

Racha El Daoi, the Communication Manager for NRC Lebanon, explained that a group of Syrian men “didn’t dare to go to the food distribution site because in one instance when they had approached, a fight escalated with their [Lebanese] neighbors who beat them.” 

Hassan Ghadar, a member of Muwatin Lebnene (Lebanese Citizen) initiative, has been coordinating volunteer work at ‘Base Camp’, a space where several NGOs offer food, therapy and repair works. “If the person needs help, we don’t care about nationality. Inside Beirut we are all one family,” he told Syria Direct. Ghadar said that he has not seen discrimination by NGOs but rather at the individual level. “Some people were asking me ‘why are you giving aid to Syrians when Lebanese people deserve it more?’”

Zeinab Ajami, a psychologist at the anti-trafficking NGO Kafa, while doing door-to-door assessments of the needs of the people, she encountered a Lebanese family that told her: “If you want to give food boxes to the Syrian neighbor, please make sure that we can’t take anything from you.” 

The activist group Akhbar al-Saha reported that in the tent of the Lebanese Forces in Mar Mikhail - a political party known for its anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric - a Syrian man was slapped for wearing a bracelet of the Syrian flag and a woman was interrogated because of her Syrian accent. In the headquarters of the Lebanese Forces in Rmeil, the party representative Nicholas Abu Arbid explained to Syria Direct that they were helping “the sons and daughters of the region, we are not going to help Syrians or Ethiopians, we do not differentiate between Muslim and Christian but they have to be Lebanese.” 

Discrimination towards non-Lebanese groups has deep roots. “Because our structural inequity and the sectarian system, Syrians and migrant workers (Bangladeshi, Ethiopian, Filipino) are left to fend for themselves. They are seen as a population that is unseen,” according to Geha, who ties the racism impregnated in today’s Lebanon to “the economic and legal framework that has treated Syrians for a decade as second-class citizens.”

Eighty-eight percent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon lack legal residency, putting them at constant risk of detention. “Due to the emergency state in Lebanon, security forces are using this power in order to arrest people who do not have legal documents, including Syrian refugees,” said Mhanna. 

Akhbar al-Saha has reported incidents where the Lebanese Army has refused to provide aid to Syrian and Sri Lankan families. Nagib Mahmoud al-Uboud, a 52-year-old originally from Hama countryside and living in Karantina, stared at several army trucks delivering food baskets to his building. “They won’t knock on my door,” he said.