Syrian Surreality

Surreal – marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream; also: unbelievable, fantastic (

I’m not sure exactly how far it is from Beirut to the Syrian border. Maybe 40 miles (65 kilometers) by highway. As the crow flies, it’s a mere 55 miles (88 kilometers) between Beirut and Damascus, the Syrian capital.

This is how close I got a couple of weeks ago:

“Frontiere Syrienne”

No, not reporting on international news, or visiting refugee host communities, or anything remotely noble like that. I went instead to visit a Lebanese winery near the town of Zahle, where I lunched on grilled squab and lamb chops in their open-air restaurant, drinking quite decent Lebanese wine… just 20 miles (35 kilometers) from a country at war.

We also toured another nearby winery, which was founded in 1857 by Jesuit priests, and has two kilometers of tunnels built centuries ago by the Romans that now serve as part of its cellars. All less than an hour from Beirut, and half an hour from the border with Syria.

Marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream“… yes, it was decidedly surreal.

Zahle was seemingly quiet, belying a staggering influx of refugees into Lebanon: 431,110 as of April 20th. Syrian neighbors Jordan and Turkey are also hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, albeit in much bigger spaces. Lebanon shares 205 miles (330 kilometers) of border with Syria, and is mercifully and rightly keeping the borders open, to any and all Syrians (as well as Palestinians resident in Syria). An estimated 3,000 refugees are passing every day. It’s no small burden, and I encourage anyone interested in the subject to check out this commentary by Human Rights Watch refugee policy director Bill Frelick.

431,110 refugees means that one out of every ten persons in Lebanon today is a Syrian refugee.

I try to imagine what the equivalent would be if something like this were happening in the U.S., with our neighbors to the north at war. A per capita equivalent would 31 million Canadians crossing the border – within the space of 15 months. (The U.S. reality is a small fraction of that, an estimated 1.8 million immigrants per year.) Instead of Syrian refugees piling into already crowded homes, garages, and other makeshift shelters in Lebanese border towns, I imagine my cousin in the Washington state border town of Bellingham accepting a desperate Canadian family into her already full home. There would probably be half a dozen families more in her church basement, and two more families in homes along her street.

Not that much farther from the border, my hometown of Seattle is located in King County, which has roughly half the area and population of Lebanon. So if I reimagine King County as Lebanon, an equivalent influx of refugees would be more than 215,000 people coming from British Columbia (the province on the Canadian side of the Washington state border). Or to envision it another way, as if the entire population of Whatcom county (where Bellingham is located) were to relocate to Seattle in the space of a year. Rents would go up, jobs would get scarcer, everyone – both locals and the displaced– would find things getting tougher.

According to last Friday’s paper, Lebanon’s Ambassador to the U.N. appealed for international assistance, based on a projection of 1.2 million Syrian refugees by the end of 2013. In Lebanon alone.

The true numbers are likely to be even higher, as middle and upper-income Syrians may not register as refugees in Lebanon, as they do not necessarily require assistance with food, shelter, and health care. Taking into account unregistered refugees, as many as one quarter of the people living in Lebanon are Syrian.

unbelievable, fantastic“…. yes, these statistics are definitely surreal.

Numbers, numbers, numbers.

Here are just a few stories behind the statistics.

  • In the nine short months that we have lived in Beirut, we have seen an increase in beggars and ambulant vendors on the street. More kids selling Chiclet gum at the stop lights, women in headscarves asking for alms in front of mosques (often with sickly-looking children across their laps). I couldn’t say what their nationality is by looking at them, but whether they are Syrian or not, it is part of the crisis’ spillover, as Lebanon loses its tourists and impoverished refugees join the ranks of impoverished locals.
  • I was told that 50 Syrian families had recently been accepted into one of the international schools we were considering when we arrived to Lebanon (making available spaces significantly fewer). There are many Syrian families at the school my children ended up attending. One of my son’s newer classmates is Syrian. His family owns a hospital in Syria, which they are managing to keep open despite having had to abandon their home. Of course, children at private schools are relatively lucky. As of January, there were already 32,000 Syrian children registered in Lebanese public schools, where they face bullying by teachers as well as students, and struggle to keep up with the English and French lessons that Lebanese students start in kindergarten.
  • Out for dinner recently with friends, a Syrian woman in our party told of her mother being verbally abused, for driving a car with Syrian plates. The woman is a lawyer, and she and her brother are trying to maintain their family firm back in Syria by telecommuting from Beirut.
  • A few weeks ago I signed up for Arabic conversation partners through the language exchange website My first Skype appointment was with a Syrian– who cancelled because his cousin had died – killed by “a weapon thrown on him by the government” he said when we spoke a few days later (maybe he meant a bomb? It didn’t seem like the moment to correct his English, I saved that for when he said things like “Mr. Amy”). He is working in Saudi Arabia, his parents live in the U.A.E., and his fiancée has left Syria for Jordan, all waiting for the day to be together again.
  • Back on March 6th, the number of Syrian refugees spread throughout the region had already reached the one million mark. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) powerfully turned numbers into faces through a photo gallery of 13 Syrian refugees with their most prized possessions – the answers were as unique as the individuals, and ranged from practical (“my cell phone”), to poetic (“my soul”). I highly recommend taking a few minutes to look.

Back to the numbers, courtesy of the UN Refugee Agency:

I’ve donated clothing and toiletries to a local non-profit that supports refugees. Clothing and food to a drive held at my children’s school for refugees and Lebanese-in-need alike….

What can I do next?

In researching this blog post, I saw that the UN Refugee Agency has launched a US$1 billion fund to respond to the crisis, but it has only been 55% funded to date. Not to mention that there is already talk of revising the estimated need, based on the dramatically spiking numbers of refugees. So I guess I found my next way to help.


Lebanon is the Switzerland of the Middle East

In my last post, I explored the “Switzerland of the Middle East” analogy, talking about the great skiing we’d found here, to our great surprise.

The Taverne Suisse in West Beirut… looks dubious

When my husband read that post he told me, “Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle East because of the banking.”

It’s not about the beauty and romance of snow-capped mountains, but the banality of banking? Way to pop my balloon.

When we arrived to Lebanon and needed to open a bank account, it was recommended that we go with a bank that is entirely foreign-owned. For security, we were told. This bank has their debit cards issued from Dubai rather than here in Lebanon. For security, they said. Customer service there has been a nightmare – as it also was for me yesterday at a Lebanese bank, where I spent nearly one hour, just to deposit a check. (System was down. Sure, that can happen anywhere, but in five years banking in Honduras, and decades banking in the US, I’ve never had a wait like that.)

Switzerland = secure and convenient banking. If the Lebanese banks aren’t considered secure enough, and the convenience certainly seems to be missing, then where does the banking analogy come from?

When in doubt, I go to Google.

Apparently, there were once banking confidentiality laws in Lebanon that were similar to Switzerland’s. (I’m putting this in the past tense, because those laws may no longer be so attractive, since the new Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA) requires foreign banks to disclose details to the IRS about U.S. account holders with $50,000 or more on deposit.)

Once I started to look, I found a whole bunch more similarities between Switzerland and Lebanon:

Closets full of gold. According to The Economist, Lebanon is second only to Switzerland in gold reserves per capita.

Why? Back to banking – the reserves were purchased in the 1960s and 70s when the country was the Middle East’s financial center. Legal restrictions kept them in the banks during the country’s civil war, not to mention legends of the Central Bank governor Edmond Naim sleeping in the bank to protect the stash. (Although it might just have been that the commute to work from the other side of town was too dangerous during the civil war.)

Pluralistic societies. A couple of years ago, there was an entire conference in Beirut on this topic, organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and kicked off by the Swiss Ambassador to Lebanon. Both countries have been challenged by religious, linguistic, cultural, and socio-economic differences. Given other radical differences between the countries (say, levels of income inequality, just to name one), I’m curious how the conversation went.

My personal favorite: chocolate production.

Lebanon is the top producer in the Middle East for fine chocolates.

There are dozens of small boutique chocolatiers all around Beirut, as well as Patchi, a famed chocolatier with shops all around the city, production both here and in Saudi Arabia, and global distribution.

As a chocolate addict who has lived in Ecuador (a cacao-exporting country that now dabbles in chocolate production), Seattle (home to gourmet chocolate producers Theo, among others), and New York (global marketplace for fine chocolates), I consider myself a novice, but enthusiastic, chocolate gourmand. Swiss chocolate is famous. I’d never heard of Lebanese chocolate before arriving.

But we were welcomed to Lebanon by Patchi chocolates. Shortly after arriving, we went to a formal luncheon where Patchi chocolates were offered to guests on a silver platter. My kids grabbed handfuls. It was mortifying, but the Lebanese hosts lived up to their fame for hospitality, and simply insisted that the kids take even more. It was my motherly duty to confiscate some of the “extras” after we left, right? They were luscious, silky, and balanced. Delicious. I savored them for days.

Patchi began in 1974 – a year before Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Terrible timing, but not only did it survive, it flourished (140 shops in 29 countries nowadays). A few months ago, I read a book about Beirut in which one of the scenes was about a girl sneaking out of her house during the war to go buy chocolates, because taking risks was a way to make life worth living. I don’t know that I’m that dedicated to chocolate, but I love the idea.

At the Mostly About Chocolate blog, they write that Patchi means kisses. I’m not sure how many kisses the Swiss give in greeting, but when the Lebanese say good-bye to their friends, they accompany it with three kisses. So as I say good-bye for today, I leave you with these: