Sarah is a young Syrian-American girl who moved from Turkey to Lebanon in early 2016 in order to work in the civilian relief and development field in Shatila camp.
She first came to know the Lebanese Palestinians because of her work in the camp. It was not an easy experience because there was deep anger amongst them because of their poverty and lack of rights. There was anger against other in the camp as well as towards the community that lived outside. Sarah noted that racism existed even towards Syrian Palestinians for there was no unity among them despite the similarity of their circumstances as refugees in Lebanon.
Sarah says, “Turkish society was more welcoming towards Syrian refugees. This was one of the first shocks I faced with Lebanese Palestinians who exploited the Syrians.” She explains, “they were in such a state of anger towards organizations that targeted and helped Syrians. Although there was a generalized state of need, there was a situation of moral violence, exploitation and even jealousy because of the Syrian refugee travel opportunities.”
Sarah believes that speaking in the Syrian dialect has negative effects, especially when speaking to taxi drivers. The fact that Syrian women are more marginalized than others opens the door to sexual harassment. Their curiosity can be disturbing. They usually ask questions about the situation in Syria and the like, which gives the woman's the sense of being somehow desecrated. As a US citizen, she travels a lot and at the airport she is subject to incidents of sexual harassment or interactions that come close to this. "Once, an airport employee told me that if I did not give him my phone number, I would not be allowed to pass. I asked him if this was part of the security procedure," she says. "At that point, he laughed and called his friends to watch me."
Sarah has not been directly exposed to racist acts but has heard that they do happen in Lebanon. Perhaps it is about the external appearance of a person, since in Lebanon this means a lot and it is part of social structure itself.
“At the beginning of my stay, all the neighbours spoke to me in English before they knew anything about me,” she recalls. “This was because of the way I dressed and perhaps because of my relatively good physical condition compared to the people in the camp. This protected me from any form of racism.”
At first, Sarah's relationships limited to her colleagues from work and those who benefitted from the association's services. Later, she expanded her network of relationships further and met many Lebanese people at social events and artistic venues she visited. Perhaps the location of her initial residence in the Jitawi region contributed to this as many close-minded Syrians and Lebanese lived there. This is unlike the people of Ayn al-Rumaneh, where she current lives, where neighbours exchange visits and invite her for a cup of coffee and the like.
“In the beginning, I had a hatred for the Lebanese without knowing where it came from. Perhaps it was because of other impressions I had about them. The media may have played a role but in general, there was truth to what I was hearing. I had many Syrian friends who came from a comfortable social and economic background, and ironically, they used to complain much more than people who were exposed to bad situations. The reason was perhaps fear or maybe it was something I cannot put my finger on. It is a situation that affected some Syrians and this is what played a big role in making them part of the group”, Sarah says.
Sarah has lived in several countries but Lebanon is the one that caused her to ask herself questions about identity and personality. She explains this by saying that “under the sectarian segmentation that exists in Lebanon, social relations exist within these divisions. As such, I feel the impact of asking existential questions, both religious and non-religious in nature, about myself. These questions are about the nature of my relationship to my education in America on the one hand, and to my affiliation to Syria and Arabs in general, and to the Arabic language on the other.”