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Voices from Lebanon: Small Business Owner Hajj Bilal

Hajj Bilal, a 35-year-old small business owner from Tripoli, recalls Syrian refugees starting to pour into into this northern Lebanese city in large numbers  just five months after the Syrian revolt broke out. Since then, his network of businesses has been a hub for those desperate for work.

Written by Alison Tahmizian Meuse Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes


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One of them is 23-year-old Khaled. Back in Homs, he was completing his baccalaureate. Here in Lebanon, he has taken a job pumping gas.

Met with an outstretched hand by a young woman, the clean-cut young man makes a point to barely touch fingers in place of a handshake.

“I came here when the bombing started in my area. I chose Tripoli because it’s peaceful, and it’s a Sunni city,” he says.

A bystander rolls his eyes, though it was unclear whether he was scoffing at the sectarian reference or the idea of stability—or both.

“They come to Tripoli because we are right across the border from Homs. The ones with money go to Beirut, but the rest stay here,” Bilal says, as the young man leaves the mobile shop and goes back across the street to the gas station.  “I try to give them so work so they can eat. They are registered as refugees but it’s only food and it’s not enough,” the 35-year-old says.

Bilal also owns a number of apartments that he rents out to newcomers for $200 per month. Usually, he says, one person arrives and then sends for the rest of their family. The apartments end up becoming crowded with several generations of Syrian families — something that he does not see as a problem.

“Above our heads there are three families living in one apartment,” he says, pointing at the ceiling from inside his cell phone store. “Haram [for shame], they need a place to stay. One person can’t afford the rent on his own.”

But Tripoli’s not a safe haven. Sectarian clashes can turn deadly, with men from the neighboring Sunni district of Bab al-Tabbaneh and the neighboring Alawite area of Jabal Mohsen engaging each other. While relations between the neighboring districts were tense long before the Syrian revolt broke out in March 2011, the conflict has made the fighting more frequent and more intense.

Bilal views the escalating unrest and economic downturn in his city as being related to issues stemming from Syria’s unrest and not to local Lebanese affairs.

“There are people with Bashar [al-Assad] and against Bashar,” he says. “It’s political.”

But he puts the biggest fault on the Arabic media for provoking people and dividing them into camps. “The media is the number one problem. The Arabic news is very bad.

Everyone is just watching the station that matches their opinion and it pushes them even further. Future [founded by former Lebanese Prime Minister and Sunni leader Rafik Hariri] says one thing, Al-Manar [the outlet of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah] says another. The TV riles them up and then they go and fight in the street. And everyone is armed.”

As he speaks, friends and neighboring business owners stop by to chat or ask for a favor. One brings us fresh juice on a tray. They talk about the day’s news, which is for once not related to Tripoli but to the southern port city of Sidon. There, supporters of the Salafist Sheikh Ahmed Assir are clashing with Hezbollah loyalists.

One person died on Tuesday as a result of the fighting before the Lebanese army fanned out, only to watch as the gunmen departed at their leisure.

“I’m Lebanese. Hezbollah is Lebanese. We don’t need to be involved in Syria. They can fight themselves,” Bilal says.

But with the war next store fanning the flames of local tensions, there is little chance of the local players retreating—whether they be aligned with Hezbollah or the young Sunni men who have traveled across the border to join the Free Syrian Army.

In the center of Tripoli, brand new banners with pictures of the sons of the city killed alongside the rebels in the battle for Qusayr are prominently displayed at intersections. They are honored as martyrs in the fight to overthrow the Assad regime.

The tri-starred flag of the Syrian revolution is also hung across the northern city—something taboo in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where pressure from Assad’s allies is dominant.

The Lebanese aren’t strangers to the Syrian regime, having lived under its military and political dominance for three decades. Syrian troops only pulled out of Lebanon in 2005, and today the country is starkly divided over the civil war next door.

“When things erupt in Tripoli, local officials get together to settle things, but you can only do this as a bandage three or four times. After that, forget it. There is a very good chance the Syrian conflict will reignite the civil war in Lebanon,” he says, his tone serious, before he heads back to work.

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