TRIPOLI, LEBANON — The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that more than 27,000 Syrian refugees are now sheltering in Lebanon after more than a year of conflict in their homeland. Ahmed Moussa, a senior member of the Syrian opposition in Lebanon, puts the number at 60,000.
Whatever the true number, living conditions have become increasingly dire for some, especially in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city, where the Syrian opposition estimates that 20,000 refugees now live.
A former cinema, abandoned two decades ago, now houses some. Clothes hang outside the projection room. Mounds of trash obstruct the aisles, and fleas crawl over the worn red fabric of the seats in the once-grand auditorium. A dog, tied up at the rear, barks half-heartedly at visitors.
Beside the torn screen, two sandbagged firing positions are used by Sunni fighters in increasingly frequent clashes with nearby Alawite militias.
For $133 a month, Abu Hamad, a 42-year-old Homs native, rents a small apartment for his family in the same building. Like many refugees, he asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution against family members in Syria.
The building housing the cinema and the apartment is in Bab al-Tabbanesh, a poor Sunni district that over the past two months has witnessed fierce clashes with pro-Assad Alawite militias in neighboring Jebel Mohsen. During the fighting, the frontline is 100 meters, or about 300 feet, from the building, which is exposed to fire.
Despite the ongoing violence in the neighborhood, Mr. Hamad said that he felt safer in Bab al-Tabbaneh than elsewhere because “the people are all against the Syrian regime.”
The big problem, though, is that there aren’t enough jobs even for the Lebanese residents of Bab al-Tabbaneh, let alone new Syrian arrivals. “By God, there is no work here,” Mr. Hamad said.
Before the uprising, Mr. Hamad drove a taxi in Homs, but now he works odd jobs a few days a week and struggles to pay the rent. Aid from the nongovernmental organizations, Islamic charities, the Syrian opposition in Lebanon and the United Nations helps refugees, but getting by is difficult.
With few work opportunities, some young men, like Mr. Hamad’s 17-year-old son, opt to go back to Syria and join the Free Syrian Army.
Um Hazifa, another refugee from Homs, lives in Baddawi, a Palestinian refugee camp north of Tripoli. She said 20 family members who have also fled the conflict sleep in the apartment, crowding the floor with thin mattresses. “Here in Baddawi, the houses are cheapest,” she said.
While more inexpensive than other areas, living in the long-established Palestinian refugee camps can be risky. Physically overstretched, the camps are home to a patchwork of factions — some allied with Damascus and viewed by refugees as hostile.
In the Baddawi camp, for example, photographs of Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader and an ally of the Syrian regime, and of Imad Mugniyeh, a military commander of the organization who was assassinated in Damascus in 2008, line some walls.
Ms. Hazifa estimated that there were between 150 and 200 Syrian refugee families in Baddawi, although Palestinian officials deny there are any Syrians there.
Like many things in Lebanon, the refugee issue is highly politicized. Rifaat Eid, head of the main Alawite political party in Lebanon, the Arab Democratic Party, which is supportive of the Syrian regime, has referred to Tripoli’s refugees as terrorists. Earlier this month, Interior Minister Marwan Charbel blamed a recent rise in crime on the influx of refugees.
This atmosphere has contributed to feelings of unease among Syrian refugees, with many afraid that they could unwittingly become entangled in Lebanon’s internal problems.
The Lebanese government has pledged to do what it can to help Syrian refugees, many of whom remain suspicious of state institutions. “We are afraid of the Lebanese Army because they are under the control of Syria,” Ms. Hazifa said.
While Jordan and Turkey — the other main destinations for Syrians fleeing the conflict — have built refugee camps, the Lebanese government has declined to do so.
“Lebanon so far has said there will be no camps, and its something that we really approve of,” said Daryl Grisgraber of Refugees International, a refugee advocacy group based in Washington. “It’s much more sort of normal for people to be living in a host community or with a host family, much easier to get on with regular life.”
While living within Lebanese communities may help Syrian refugees integrate, there are significant drawbacks.
Refugees like Ms. Hazifa are essentially off the grid and out of reach of much of the aid available — and running out of money needed to sustain an already threadbare lifestyle.
“We would rather live in Homs under attack than live here,” said one of Ms. Hazifa’s male relatives.