Illustration by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.
Radio Hakaya is a community radio project started by Brush&Bow in a refugee camp in North Lebanon. Radio Hakaya's podcasts feature individuals whose communities have been directly affected by the war in Syria and the displacement of Syrians to Lebanon. Each podcast presents a subjective opinion that, combined with the rest of the series, provides a mosaic of differing perspectives and experiences, exploring the reasons why people fled Syria, the living conditions in Lebanon and what the future might hold.
All recordings are taken, translated and edited with the help from members of the local community.
Interviews and Editing by Roshan De Stone & David L. Suber.
Editing and Translations by Fadi Haddad.
Illustrations by Hannah Kirmes-Daly.
This is the third podcast of an 8-part series. It is an interview with Tony Abood, the mayor of Minyara, a small predominantly Christian village in Akkar, the northern most province of Lebanon. Born in Minyara, Tony Abood has been the mayor of his town for more than 20 years.
His political career began when large parts of Lebanon were under Syrian occupation, an occupation that started during the Lebanese civil war, and lasted until the assassination of Lebanon's then prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005.
Remembering when half his village fled to Syria during the Lebanese Civil War, Abood reflects on the big-brother relationship Syria has with Lebanon and the paradox that, after having hosted Lebanese refugees, so many Syrians have now come to Lebanon to seek refuge from war in their country.
Abood is known for his harsh policies toward Syrian refugees: enforcing a 6 pm curfew, evicting families and being a public supporter of the return of refugees to Syria – despite Syria not yet being safe for refugees to return.
Abood points to how Lebanon is not equipped with sustaining Syrian refugees any further, and that between the corruption and mismanagement of aid money by public office and agencies, a lot of international support has gone to waste. However, he is prone to overestimate numbers and statistics, doubling both the population of Syria and the number of Syrians in Lebanon.
Despite the crudeness of his opinions, it is important to hear what he says as it reflects a growing trend amongst politicians and public officials in Lebanon, who believe - despite recurring reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearances and forced conscription - that Syria is safe for Syrians to return to, and that Lebanon has done enough for Syrian refugees.
Just as important to listen to what Abood has to say, it is crucial to note what he omits. He fails to consider that 'Lebanese hospitality' is also based on widespread and systematic exploitation of Syrians, and that where competition is getting harder for Lebanese workers, the reason predominantly lies with business owners in Lebanon who are profiting from the crisis, setting lower wages and often preferring to hire irregular Syrian workers for little to nothing than Lebanese regular workers.
His experience represents only a fragment of the very complex puzzle of memories and positions Lebanese society holds on the hardships of hosting such a high number of refugees in such a small country. As such, it should be heard in relation to the contents expressed in the previous and forthcoming podcasts.
Listen to the podcast in English or in Arabic below
Read the transcript:
Podcast #3: Abood: Mayor of Minyara
Welcome to Radio HAKAYA – حكايا the official podcast series of Brush and Bow. These podcasts report on stories and challenges of the Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian communities in Lebanon. By focusing on individual stories, we hope to convey the complex realities of life here in Lebanon: people’s memories, present experiences and hopes for the
future. We would like to remind you that the views published on these podcasts are the participants alone and do not reflect the opinions of Brush and Bow.
Today’s podcast is an interview with Tony Abbod, the Mayor of Minyara. Minyara is a Christian village in Akkar, the northern most province of Lebanon and one of the poorest regions of the country. It is here, along with the Beqaa valley, that the majority of Syrians in Lebanon have found refuge, fleeing the 7-year civil war across the border. In this interview, Abbod tells us about his memories of the Lebanese civil war, and about the complex history that has turned Syrians from occupiers to refugees in Lebanon.
I have been the leader of the Shefet union of 12 municipalities for 9 years. And I have also been the mayor of Minyara since 1998.
The Lebanese war of 1975 wasn’t a war between Muslims and Christians, but rather one between the Palestinian and the Lebanese.
When the Syrian military arrived, they established offices and checkpoints everywhere. Soon they controlled the whole of Lebanon! Beirut, Zagharta, the south, the Bekka valley, everywhere.
I’ll tell you something: our villages here in Akkar were not hugely affected by the civil war. Only a little. And that is because there was social harmony between Muslims and Christians in Akkar. But when orders were given to groups of thugs from outside to attack some villages, they would come to steal and kill.
For example, these groups of thugs would come to Akkar with orders to attack this or that village, according to their sectarian population, and this was in order to make pressure or regulate contentions in another places. This kind of thing continued to happen until Hariri died and the Syrian military withdrew.
And the result of this today is that all the different sects of Lebanese society cannot find any agreement. Not even between different Christian groups, or amongst the Druze, or amongst the Sunnis. The only exception are the Shia, as their parties of Hizbullah and the Amal movement have an agreement with each other. This is the state of the country today.
During the civil war some Lebanese from Akkar fled to Syria, whilst others remained here. It was mostly the Christians who left to Syria of course. But once the war was over they returned back to their homes in Lebanon.
Syria is a country of 30 - 40 million people whereas Lebanon is a country of only 3 million. When we went to Syria, our numbers were insignificant. 4000, 5000, maybe even if 20,000 Lebanese went to Syria, that was nothing overall. But when 2 million Syrians come to live with 3 million Lebanese, that is nearly as much as our own population!
When the Syrians refugees came here everybody welcomed them at first. But soon the number of Syrians became too huge. Associations started to come and offer help to the Syrians but, trust me, three quarters of these associations are thieves. They keep 90% for themselves and only give 10% to the Syrians.
The situation in Syria now is acceptable for return. There are some villages and areas where there is no fighting anymore. There are safe areas, but the Syrians are still here. We can’t ask all the Syrians to go back to Syria. If all the Syrians left, then we wouldn’t have anyone to work on land, or in the industrial labour markets. Do you understand my point?
But the great numbers should go back to their country, to their villages. They are making political settlements for Syria to resolve the conflict. Those Syrians who are wanted by the regime, they should stay here, but those who don’t run any risks should go back to Syria!
Recently, a Syrian called me saying that there are about 3,500 people from Quaysir in Syria who want to go back to their home town. So I called an officer in the Lebanese General Security where an officer told me to wait half an hour. This officer called someone in Beirut and half an hour later I received a call from the department in Beirut confirming the political will to facilitate the process of return for these Syrians and provide whatever help they might need. The next day, we held a meeting here with the Syrians in presence of the General Security officers, but the Syrians were advised not to go back. Why? I don’t know.
Fear of being imprisoned by the regime!? No, it’s not about prison. There is an agreement between the Lebanese General Security and the Syrian government. Whoever wants to go back Syria will have their name sent to the Syrian government to check if they are wanted or not. Those who are wanted will be informed and will have to fix their situation with the regime before going back. And if they are not wanted, then the Syrians will be free to return to Syria. For example, if someone is wanted for compulsory military service, they will inform them and give them 6 months’ grace to get their affairs in order. Only then will they be forced to join the military – as the military service in Syria is compulsory. You must serve or pay a lot of money not to serve.
No one will be forced to return. Nobody! If they are fearful of return, they can stay in Lebanon, and no one would force them to go back. Only if they say, “I want to return,” then the Lebanese authorities would facilitate their return. But no one would force them. Ever.
Most of the Syrian refugees who came at the beginning were self-employed. Syrians took many jobs from the Lebanese, working in gold shops, in sweet shops, they are driving the buses, the trucks….
The Lebanese work in restaurants and services, and only a few of them in agriculture. But when the Syrians came here they took not only jobs in agriculture but in almost everything. Today, almost all restaurants workers are Syrians. Some Syrians even hired shops and opened their own restaurants! And they can buy stocks from Syria at cheaper prices than we can find here in Lebanon.
Lebanon! Ah Lebanon… when the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, Lebanon was divided into several sects. This was what caused the sickness of this country. It means that today, if you want to grant citizenship to a Muslim, the Christians would refuse and vice versa. Do you understand? So giving citizenship in our country is a very difficult issue. Today, if someone travels to Australia, Brazil, Canada, they might get citizenship. But in this country, even in you have a Lebanese mother, you won’t get Lebanese citizenship.
Lebanon is not like in all the other countries. This is a country where every decision is made outside, by others. Nothing its decided by its people. Never. Everything is linked to larger powers outside the country. For example, Saad Al Hariri is linked to Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah to Iran. Do you get me?
We have every political group linked to a different country. The decisions are taken by those countries, and here we can’t decide nothing for ourselves. Never. Here, the people don’t decide anything. The people, in Lebanon, don’t decide anything.