BEIRUT, Lebanon -- My first day back in Beirut from an intense assignment did not go so well. A combination of anti-Syrian racism in Lebanon and road rage landed me and a public van driver in a police station.
Thankfully, no one was hurt. But the incident captures a new level of tension in Lebanon, as the small country struggles with more than 1.5 million Syrians from all walks of life who have fled their country's civil war. Lebanon’s population is barely 4.5 million.
Trouble started after I picked up a friend from a work function, and we drove off to have dinner at a restaurant on the other side of town. On the way there, a Lebanese public transport minivan bumped the back right side of my car, which has Syrian license plates. The driver then drove up to my passenger seat window and, with a smug face, started hurling anti-Syrian insults.
I had already been hearing from Syrian expats in Lebanon about a marked rise in anti-Syrian sentiments. Many swear they’ve been told by Lebanese merchants: “We don’t sell to Syrians,” as soon as a Syrian accent gave them away.
I have personally experienced rudeness from Lebanese professionals the instant they realized I was Syrian.
In some parts of Lebanon, locals even put up signs stating that “Foreign workers must not be in public between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.,” a presumed reference to Syrian laborers.
Sometimes, the sign explicitly states "Syrian," prompting a backlash to the backlash when Lebanese human rights groups put up signs saying: “We apologize for the racists in our midst.”
To add complexity, Syrians who have fled to Lebanon come from all socioeconomic backgrounds. There are the super-wealthy, who moved their entire business operations into Lebanon, creating direct investment opportunities and jobs -- though they usually hire Syrians or bring their own staff with them from Syria.
There are the affluent upper-middle class people, who spend thousands of dollars in Lebanon on rent and everyday living, without necessarily earning that money in Lebanon.
There are middle-class Syrians who are not so flush with cash, but find themselves having to pay Lebanon’s exorbitant (and highly exploitative) rents and prices, until they run out of money and decide to return to the violence in their hometowns, come what may.
There are young Syrians, men and women on the run from the Syrian authorities for their activism, ranging from human rights to humanitarian relief in rebel-held areas (considered a crime in Syria), to refusing to serve in the Syrian Army when their military orders arrive.
Many of them cannot return home without risking indefinite detention by the Assad regime, something they know all too well from having already experienced the torture chamber, or from friends and loved ones who have.
Then there are Syrians who have lost everything, including home and family. They fled a certain death at home to come to Lebanon with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Some, including children, end up begging in the streets of Beirut. Weak and exploitable, they’ll polish your shoes for a nickel.
There are professional Syrians like myself, who spend a lot of time in Syria, bearing witness to war and all its misery, before returning to Beirut for a breather.
The conspicuous presence of so many Syrians gives many Lebanese cause for voicing all sorts of complaints, including absurd ones.
“They’re taking our jobs. They’re begging in our streets. They’re pushing rent prices up.”
And, particularly relevant to what happened with me last week, “They’re causing traffic jams”.
My initial reaction to the minivan driver was to calmly ask if he wanted to pull over and start a police report. After all, I pointed out, it was his fault.
But he responded with more anti-Syrian insults. I think he said something along the lines of: “Haha, what’s a Syrian gonna do about it anyway?” Then, he took off.
This is when the combination of work-related stress, fatigue and hunger prompted me to chase him down, against my better judgment.
I caught up to him and blocked his car, demanding he disembark so we could assess the damage to my car. But instead, he rammed into me for the second time -- this time on purpose -- and he fled. So I chased him again, and my friend snapped photos of his license plate and called the police.
There was irony in what happened next.
The minivan driver, himself low on the food chain in Lebanon’s struggling economy, must have thought he had found someone to bully: A Syrian “refugee,” and a woman, thinking someone like that would have no recourse in a country not her own. Perhaps he would have been correct in his assumption had I not had all my paperwork in order, or had I been otherwise disenfranchised.
But it turned out that he was the one without proper paperwork. He was not even licensed to drive a public van. Like many Lebanese, he had “borrowed” his friend’s public van for a day’s wage.
The police, while still on the phone with us, located the proper van owner, who in turn called the van driver, who finally pulled over to the curb. Pale and trembling, he descended from the van and walked toward my window, asking: “What do you want from me? Just tell me, what do you want?”
I told him I expected him to pay for the damage that he caused. This time, he was not so smug. And he did not hurl any more insults my way.
At the police station, my friend and I filed a painstakingly detailed report, alleging “an offense against race, nationality or ethnicity,” which to our surprise the police took seriously.
The next day, I got to confront the driver at the police station. He apologized, looking shrunken and embarrassed. The van’s auto insurance is now taking care of the damages.
But walking out of the precinct, I could not help but wonder how that van driver, already so ignorant and seething with resentment, will behave the next time he thinks he can bully a displaced Syrian.