By : Mona Fawaz, Ahmad Gharbieh, Mona Harb, and Dounia Salamé


[This article is part of the launch of Jadaliyya’s Refugees and Migrants page. To see the introduction of the page and other all other launch articles, click here.]


Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mona Fawaz (MF), Ahmad Gharbieh (AG), Mona Harb (MH), Dounia Salamé (DS): As the so-called refugee crisis was growing in Lebanon, we saw a major gap in the way reports, the media, and academic research represent refugees. They typically conceptualize of refugees as a relatively monolithic group of destitute, powerless, and passive aid recipients. Indeed, many of these writings depict the refugees as mere victims of external pressures that have forcefully displaced them and exposed them to the violence of host communities, often predicting the looming threat of explosive conditions. In these representations, refugees endure their reality; they rarely participate in its making. This contrasted sharply with our observations of Syrian refugees in Lebanon over the past years which reveal an impressive competence among refugees at learning and negotiating the city. Through practices such as naming, moving, occupying, and/or contesting, these refugees have produced new representations of the cities, where they have imposed new forms of inhabiting their quarters. Furthermore, by negotiating their access to shelter, work, and other basic ingredients of their everyday livelihoods, refugees have acquired important competences in learning and practicing the city. These practices rely on know-how acquired and/or redeployed, but they also reflect the presence of networks of social solidarity that often span across the typically divisive categories of refugee/host community members to connect groups of Syrian refugees with members of various Lebanese social and religious communities as well as other refugees living in Lebanon, foreign migrant workers, and other vulnerable social groups. These observations indicate the need to articulate a different representation of the refugee experience, one through which refugees are recognized as active, competent social agents and partners in whatever relief and/or long-term development strategy is being articulated.

In addition, our publication seeks to initiate a debate among policymakers, activists, workers in local and international relief agencies, scholars, and other city dwellers about the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. It aims to influence public opinion, and consequently public policy and the strategies and projects of relief agencies by underscoring refugees’ know-how, different sets of agency, and networks of social solidarity as key ingredients for better responses to the ongoing refugee crisis. It also seeks to denounce the symbolic practices through which refugees continue to be stigmatized as passive, dependent recipients of aid on whom the social and spatial geography of the city is simply imposed.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MF, AG, MH, DS: The “refugee studies” literature, as well as international organizations’ reports, increasingly highlight the importance of recognizing the urbanization of the refugee experience, without fleshing out its consequences on the city nor on potential urban planning policies. We sought to add our “urban lens” to this conversation by bringing questions of housing, employment, mobility, spatial practices, and, more generally, livelihood in the city.

The contributions tackle a large number of issues, through a variety of mediums. From the right to freely move, the effects of INGO policies, as well as the role of migrants in the building sector, the art scene or waste management, to home-making, spatial appropriation, and networks of solidarity, all the contributions provide a facet of how refugees contribute to the city they live in. In addition to the variety of topics they approach, the contributions do so through several mediums, each adding to the full image in their own ways. You will find, in the publication, a comic, photographs, photo-essays, an illustrated poem, several types of maps, and many more.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MF, AG, MH, DS: This publication is the third of a series of publications in which a sub-group of us explored an urban subject through a synergy of research and mapping, with an addition of invited contributions aiming to enrich the developed framework. The first was published in 2012, in Arabic and titled Beirut: City of Security.” It was distributed as a free supplement with al-Akhbar Lebanese daily newspaper. It explored the security mechanisms deployed on the city’s territories and its political meanings. The second, published in 2015, also in Arabic, under the title Practicing the Publicwas also distributed as a free supplement to a Lebanese daily (al-Safir). It is available online on the American University of Beirut’s Issam Faris Policy Institute’s “Social Justice and the City” program website as the publication was conceived as part of a larger exploration on matters related to inclusion in the city. Practicing the Public aimed to give visibility to practices of public and open spaces in Beirut. All three publications contain original research conducted by the editorial team combined with mapping exercises aiming at once to visualize the research results and to inform the remaining data collection and analysis efforts.

These publications are produced with the aim of reacting to salient urban issues. In 2012, the City of Security publication came as a response to the increasing presence and visibility of security mechanisms following several violent events starting in 2005. In 2015, the publication about public spaces came in the midst of debates and campaigns about the opening of Horsh Beirut to the public and the building projects in Dalieh. As such, the publication is an opportunity to interact with the city’s inhabitants on subjects that are being debated in the public sphere. It is also the occasion for data visualization experiments to take place, as the editorial team needs to figure out the challenge of working on mapping unusual data such as oral histories, practices that span differently in time and space, and moving elements.

Refugees as City-Makers is our first bilingual publication. It is also produced as part of the AUB/IFI Social Justice and the City program. This time it was not disseminated as part of a Lebanese daily, but will be widely distributed through regular events we are planning throughout the 2018-19 academic year, and beyond. It is also available electronically on the SJC’s website, in English and Arabic. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MF, AG, MH, DS: We hope many types of audiences will read this book and discuss it. International organizations, such as UN agencies and INGOs working on the refugee crisis in Lebanon and elsewhere, as well as NGOs, experts and professionals associated to the work of humanitarian institutions, are one of the primary target audiences. Moreover, we are keen on having this book read by decision-makers in government agencies, and regional and local governments. Scholars and university students interested in migration, displacement, and refugees, as well as spatial representation, mapping, and data visualization, will also find this book relevant to their work. Last but not least, we also hope our book will be read by all types of dwellers of Lebanese cities, nationals, and others, and our wish is that it may contribute to debunking some of the stereotypes and the stigmas many of them behold.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MF, AG, MH, DS: In the same realm of displacement and urban studies, Mona Fawaz and Mona Harb are working on another research project addressing the refugees in Lebanon—with the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS) and the Syrian Policy Research Center (SPRC). Through exploring the formal and informal systems of urban governance in four medium-sized Lebanese cities, we are investigating how Syrian refugees find ways to access urban services and infrastructure, and how this access varies in relation to factors related to urban history, geography, and local politics.

Beyond displacement, the team is working on another research project seeking to produce a database of buildings in Beirut, which will provide a platform to researchers keen on investigating how spatial production processes intersect with various other dimensions, ranging from housing, to the environment, to political economy.

J: What more can you tell us about the visual research in the publication?

MF, AG, MH, DS: Through a number of mapping exercises focused on different aspects of refugee practice in Beirut, the visualization work accompanying the original research in this publication develops a series of readings that document and spatially represents the refugee urban experience as generative and multifaceted. The different components of this visual research together aim at countering the de-politicized refugee narrative and disrupting dominant understandings of refugees as mere victims of wars and/or the violence of host communities. We further aim at unbundling the visual representation of the refugee category, moving beyond “census cartography”–exemplified perfectly by the undifferentiated cluster representations of refugees by humanitarian agencies such as UNHCR–and towards more practice-based, bottom-up representations, with a focus on people’s navigations of their daily lives, and through which refugees are recognized as active social agents. To do so, we examine and visualize refugee practices through three research entry points that put the lived experiences of refugees at the centre, and adopt tailored information design and visualization strategies that allow for their knowledge–as well as that of the authors– to directly inform the language and method of their representation.
Excerpt from Book

From: Mona Harb, Ali Kassem, Watfa Najdi, 2018, “Syrian-Owned Businesses in the City”
 in Mona Fawaz, Ahmad Gharbieh, Mona Harb, and Dounia Salamé (eds.), Refugees as City-Makers, Beirut: AUB-IFI, SJC, pp 22-35.

Our analysis further led us to extract four themes that shed light on the practices and experiences of all three categories of Syrian businesses. First, Syrian businessmen all shared the urge of being legal (nizami), amidst the difficulty of coping with unclear Lebanese regulations. Second, businesses with an extensive social network—and hence more access to information, stood out. Businesses with no networks struggle, as they have little to no access to resources or to valuable information—such as our carpenter. The bakers managed to open their business thanks to a loan they received from family members living in the Gulf. The sweets shop owners opened their business after they saved enough money through work they undertook with Syrian partners in Oman and Dubai. Two of the men who have restaurants have Lebanese partners. Our findings also show that Syrians’ social networks with the host community are stronger than initially assumed: several cited Lebanese associates who support them in their endeavors, either through business partnership or through direct employment. It is thus likely that several Lebanese are making additional income thanks to Syrian businesses. As such, media stories that portray Syrian-Lebanese interactions exclusively in terms of aggression, competition, and racism miss out on the values of trust and solidarity that are revealed through these business partnerships.

Third, all Syrian businessmen experience insecurity—though it varied significantly according to income. It is stronger with the struggling businesses, and much more contained with the comfortable ones. Some of the struggling businessmen conveyed feelings of misery about being in Lebanon, being subjected to persecution and discrimination, and living without rights. This feeling of insecurity forced them to keep to themselves and stay within the confines of their work and home. Indeed, they are rather sedentary and spatially anchored in their workspace and home, with occasional travel outside of their daily territories, mostly to family or friends from Syria. The mobility of coping and comfortable businessmen is quite different, and reveals a wider geography of the city and the country. These businessmen own a car and navigate the city’s streets more comfortably: they spend evenings in restaurants and cafes, and weekends away from the city. As described by one of them: “we go to various places—each time we go somewhere”.

Fourth, while their mobility patterns were rather constrained, the impact of Syrian-owned businesses on the city was meaningful, as evidenced in the Hamra neighborhood. Hamra stands out as a location that attracts many Syrians, as they perceive it to be a “more open place”, “a destination for many Syrians who love it”, and “a safer business bet”. Some described how they strolled Hamra for long hours and days before identifying the ideal location for their shop. Hamra provided a space that was perceived as cosmopolitan and neutral, and, thus, welcoming for new businesses, irrespective of the owner’s political allegiance to the regime, and as long as it was kept invisible. This perception was not shared by all Syrians, as evidenced in the essay about Syrian youth who moved away from Hamra to Jeitaoui, and tell another story where Hamra was not as neutral.

From: Mona Fawaz, Dounia Salamé, Isabela Serhan, “Seeing the City as a Delivery Driver”
 in Mona Fawaz, Ahmad Gharbieh, Mona Harb, and Dounia Salamé (eds.), Refugees as City-Makers, Beirut: AUB-IFI, SJC, pp 60-81.

How do these men learn to read and navigate the city? Most of our respondents had started by working for neighborhood-based businesses, delivering groceries on foot. Others had trailed a friend or relative for a few days before officially beginning on the job. Above all, our findings confirmed the importance of a thick web of social networks (kinship and village ties) that consolidates the knowledge acquired about the city by generations of labor migrants who have come from Syria to Beirut. More specifically, Syrian deliverymen learn landmarks and wayfinding techniques primarily from older relatives who preceded them on this job while police avoidance strategies are shared on social media and particularly on whatsapp cellular communication. As time passes, the social networks extend beyond family and national relations and several long-timers explained their reliance on whatsapp groups connecting motorcycle drivers, irrespective of national or religious belonging, and providing mutual support by warning against checkpoints.

Ultimately, it is possible to see in the process of negotiating one’s mobility and visibility in the city alongside other refugees and Lebanese men, the rise of new forms of solidarity that bring men closer on the basis of shared class conditions rather than national belonging and ushers new forms of claiming the city based on class solidarity among individuals who resist policing and poor work conditions. Thus, in one indicative anecdote, a Syrian delivery man re- counted how a Lebanese colleague had convinced him to contest a driving ticket he had received driving the wrong way then accompanied him to court where he pleaded on his behalf to the judge since the Syrian man couldn’t enter the tribunal without official papers, saving him 100USD in fines. Another described a group of colleagues who redistribute delivery jobs depending on the destination and their respective familiarity with the city’s zones. A third explained how colleagues reallocate jobs in high security areas to Lebanese delivery men since the latter are better equipped to face an aggressive checkpoint.

In sum, long timers frequently displayed an attitude of solidarity that reflects their shared experiences in the city, one that translates into confidence in one’s experience and faith in the collective. Thus, several of our respondents recalled putting forward collective demands for better pay or work conditions, an unusual feat for undocumented migrants in situations of high vulnerability. For example, one respondent reported organizing a “sort of strike”, making the employer choose between a raise for all delivery drivers or facing mass resignation… a negotiation that lead 18 of the 20 deliverymen to resign collectively, and, more interestingly, for the men to refuse to take-back the job unless they were all offered the same raise. Another delivery driver recalled how the unjust firing of one of the deliverymen on the crew of his restaurant led him and four other colleagues to resign within a few days. Asked how they could challenge their employers given how badly they needed to work, the men explained that they had acquired sufficient skills and mastery of the city’s map to justify demanding better work conditions. No doubt, the strong solidarity ties built while learning together to navigate the city and sharing the same risks in this form of work further bind these men together and empower them to organize collectively for their rights.

From: Mona Fawaz, Dounia Salamé, Alina Oueishek, “Inhabiting the City, Remaking its Quarters” in Mona Fawaz, Ahmad Gharbieh, Mona Harb, and Dounia Salamé (eds.), Refugees as City-Makers, Beirut: AUB-IFI, SJC, pp 110-117.

Typically in their 20s-30s, most of these young men hold university degrees they had earned in Syria be- fore the outbreak of the war. They also all share a similar urban middle-class background in the Syrian contexts from which they had arrived. None of these young men is registered with UNHCR and most reject vehemently the label of “refugee”, denouncing between the lines the ensuing stigmatization in this Lebanese context, and distancing themselves of the ways UN agencies and “international” language dehumanize those carrying this label, strip them of their agency, and deny them a political identity. Despite this, given their educational background and skills, some of them eventually were also integrated in the humanitarian machine however as employees rather than aid recipients. The others mostly work in their field of studies, as artists/artisans or young professionals.

In their individual and collective positions, these young men widely identify as early supporters of the “revolution”. They perceive this shared experience as the heart of their collective political identity, one that imposed on most of them fleeing Syria to avoid forced circumscription. This explains why men outnumber women in this network, but also why so many among them choose to stay in Lebanon, hoping they can return soon after the war is over. As the situation extended, many however lost hope and sought relocation in Europe. By the time of our interviews in 2017, it seemed that only the “most committed” remained, “those who stayed” to be “close to home”.

In Lebanon, this collective identity has consolidated through the shared experiences of forced displacement, as well as their individual trajectories in Beirut. In addition, experiences of facing open hostility and widespread discrimination, as well as the constant quest for safety amidst a criminalizing legal framework increased the need for these individuals to “cluster”, well in line with any immigrant community that struggles for integration and/or protection in a “foreign” context. Thus narratives they recounted of their lives in Beirut were rich with stories of being “uncovered as Syrians” through their accent in collective taxis (service), an identification that inevitably leads to unpleasant conversations about the “presence of Syrians in Lebanon” or “the war in Syria”. As one of them summarized, “in both cases, we’re stuck: at the time of the Syrian army’s [occupation] there was a bad perception of Syrians [in Lebanon], and in times of refuge, it’s the same”.

In turn, this collective identity has created a powerful network of solidarity among this youth, one through which they support each other by offering shelter to newcomers, sharing information about work, housing, or travel opportunities, recommending each other to landlords, sharing guaranteeing about health care providers, urban safety, legal conditions, and more… This network is particularly vital for this group of refugees given their limited pre-war experiences of Lebanon. In the absence of networks of labor migration on which they can capitalize, their “learning” of the city depends more heavily on their individual and collective experiences since displacement, as well as the networks of solidarity they have been developing.