Crossing over the bridge from Beirut proper into Bourj Hammoud reveals a diverse smattering of ethnic and economic backgrounds – first-, second- and third-generation refugee and migrant families from Iraq, Sudan and Afghanistan all living together in seeming harmony among the working-class district’s winding streets and endless buzz.
I have often wondered why this small suburb, established nearly a century ago as a refuge for Armenians fleeing the Ottoman massacres of World War I, has become a safe place for the region’s displaced, and how it continues to operate as its population steadily increases, and now, as it takes in more and more of Syria’s refugees.
Is it because the area is more open to different ethnic communities with similar socioeconomic backgrounds or is it considered “accessible” and people feel more welcomed in Bourj Hammoud than in other areas of Lebanon?
During the 2006 Lebanon–Israel war, refugees from all over the country flocked to Bourj Hammoud, among other neighborhoods, and were welcomed into its schools, churches and other establishments, where they were offered food and shelter.
On a recent weekend, I visited the Karaguezian Health Clinic and the Armenian Prelacy in Bourj Hammoud and met a handful of young women and men working either as volunteers or as full-time social workers, dedicated to community service and to helping the never-ending flow of refugees from Syria.
I also met three Syrian-Armenian refugee women – Osan, Anoush and Anahid – who had recently taken refuge in the area after fleeing their homes in northern Syria.
“We had to leave,” said Osan, 27, who left her home in the old city of Aleppo in 2013 along with her husband, two daughters and mother-in-law as violence steadily engulfed the area.
Like many other families from Aleppo, Osan and her family eventually found their way to the tiny Bourj Hammoud community, after word of mouth had passed on the promise of jobs, cheap rent and a hospitable locale.
Local organizations across Bourj Hammoud’s Armenian community have gone out of their way to accommodate Armenian and non-Armenian Syrians fleeing the war next door.
The Armenian Prelacy of Bourj Hammoud, for example, is providing tuition fees for 304 students in eight different primary and secondary schools throughout the municipality.
The Karageuzian Health Clinic, for its part, has been supporting around 2,270 families who have arrived in the suburb since October 2012, providing them with free legal and medical assistance.
“The school is very good and the teachers are very nice to our daughters,” said Osan. “But we do miss home and we miss our family who stayed behind in Aleppo. Most of all, we miss Aleppo.”
Most of Osan’s extended family are still back in Aleppo, but they communicate whenever there are lulls in the fighting, as long as there is electricity, she said. She simply had no choice but to leave to give her children a better future.
“We live in a small one-bedroom apartment with my mother-in-law, who is getting older and needs special care. Life is expensive in Lebanon. My husband works in a mechanics shop in Bourj Hammoud. But between rent, tuition and food, we can barely cover our day-to-day expenses, never mind healthcare.
Osan, Anoush and the other women I met had hope in their eyes and were happy that their children were able to attend schools and the healthcare center and that the prelacy was supporting them.
“I take my daughters to the Karageuzian Center’s Health Clinic. They know us there and the doctors are great,” said Osan.
Indeed, Osan, Anoush and many other ladies spend their time at the Karageuzian Center, which, once a week, organizes a seminar attended by more than 100 women.
“We gather at Karageuzian to meet other women like us. We eat and spend time together.”
Osan and Anoush are among the refugee women who frequent the center on a regular basis. They come together to socialize, to talk about their issues and to share a meal.
Their challenges are similar, regardless of background: Rent is high and life in Lebanon is expensive. But I could feel each of these women’s voices get warmer whenever they spoke about their children, school enrollments and prospects for the future. Their sole collective concern was for the betterment of their children’s future.
Anahid, another woman from Aleppo, fills her days by learning English and taking aerobics classes as she waits for her children to return from school. She said she’s happy in Bourj Hammoud. Her brother is in Sweden but, without a steady income and a decent amount of cash in reserve, her family would never survive there. So with a smile and a dash of hope, she and many others like her carry on in Bourj Hammoud.
“We are happy here. We speak the same language,” said Anahid.
More than just a place of survival, Bourj Hammoud has become a place of hope. It is an ever-evolving city within a city. Its demographic landscape is almost continuously changing. And despite the crumbling infrastructure, the shortage of real estate and the recent citywide garbage crisis, the Armenian community, who arrived in Lebanon as refugees some 100 years ago, are repaying the favor, providing hope and stability to yet another wave of regional refugees, helping them find a bit of breathing space amid the chaos of Beirut.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Syria Deeply.