An accidental faux pas sometimes teaches you a lot about a culture. On this occasion it was a warning from a Lebanese friend that saved me – a Lebanese American living in Beirut – from breaking convention. What crime against custom had I been about to commit? Simply, I was planning to wear my very Californian flip flops in public.
“Don’t put those on,” my friend advised; “that’s what all the Syrians do”. Wearing cheap, practical sandals is common among the Syrian labourers; it is not so acceptable among the better-shod Lebanese.
There are multiple reasons why Lebanese have not always been at ease with their Syrian neighbours. But sometimes feelings are rooted in old-fashioned snobbery. The more Western-facing, well-educated Lebanese historically employed impoverished Syrian guest workers in menial positions such as field labourers, street cleaners, maids, and gas station attendants. So the Lebanese began to associate being Syrian with being poor, not well educated, “backwards”, and unsophisticated.
Bigger issues of politics, identity and history over several decades also explain why many, if not most, Lebanese have not liked Syrians. The two countries have had a complicated history. Modern Lebanon – carved out from the Ottoman state “Greater Syria” under the French Mandate – was originally created as a Christian-majority state, independent of modern Syria. Since the separation, a Lebanese nationalism and independent identity have developed and conflicts with the Syrian government and its interventionist policies have grown.
The stronger Syrian government, with its population of over 20 million today versus the 4 million Lebanese, played an influential role in Lebanese politics since the 1970s. Attitudes to this among the various Lebanese political factions vying for power ranged from support to condemnation.
After the Lebanese civil war in 1990, the Syrian government solidified its position through open military and political control in Lebanon. Their heavy hand brought peace to a war-torn country, but this Pax Syriana came at a price. The Syrian security forces set up checkpoints across Lebanon, carried out extrajudicial killings, open control of state security apparatuses, and were guilty of human rights violations, oppressive tactics, and disappearances.
Syrians began to be seen as outsiders, colonists, and were deeply unpopular”
Although various Lebanese political groups had – and are still – allied with the (formerly) powerful Syrian regime, the Syrians began to be seen as outsiders, colonists, and were deeply unpopular in the post-war period. This lack of popularity was magnified after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, widely believed to have been carried out by Hezbollah on Syria’s orders due to Hariri’s opposition to their role in Lebanese politics.
Yet today, in the light of the Syrian crisis, there are hints of change in this attitude. This is particularly true in the churches which are helping to lead refugee relief across Lebanon. Since over a million Syrians fled into tiny Lebanon in the past few years, churches and their partners in Western countries have taken on the challenge to reach out to a group of people many considered enemies, and show them love and kindness.
I have sat through sermons by multiple Lebanese pastors in which they commanded their fellow Christians to treat the Syrians living among them with respect. One pastor condemned a sentiment he found among his attendees, that this devastating civil war is what “the Syrians deserve after what they did to us.” Instead, he argued, we must show them the love of Christ.
In the climate of fear the Lebanese are living in it would not be surprising if they turned their backs on these refugees. They face war along every border, a deeply divided, dysfunctional government, and a million needy strangers consuming resources and aid the Lebanese themselves relied on. But, instead, we have seen believers welcoming Syrians into their churches, providing them with relief, aid, education, care, and love.
Christians involved with this aid have told me how they have let go of old grievances – valid or otherwise – against Syrians seeking help. There are others, still on their own journey, who support their church’s efforts among refugees even if they themselves don’t want to participate directly.
These attitudes are not going to change on a national scale overnight. But I have been blessed to witness bright moments of hope and of reconciliation in relationships historically rooted in pride and animosity. Whatever the outcome of this crisis, I pray that the Church will be there for all those in need and a force for love and kindness in the darkest of situations.