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With Munza in the Bekaa

Daily life between a displaced and host community in Beqaa village

by Jenny Gustafsson

It’s a sunny day in the Bekaa, early enough in spring for the snow to remain on the highest mountains. The road cutting through the valley is busy with trucks, vans, and cars. Near Chtoura, a man next to a parked car calls out, “Sham, Sham.” A small tuk tuk stops on the side of the road. Muzna Al Zohouri, a woman in her thirties, steps out.

The agricultural lands of the Bekaa, where work in the fields is done mostly by Syrians, often women and children.

Al Zohouri, a journalist and community expert on women and refugee issues from Al Qusayr in Syria, dedicates much of her time to social and volunteering activities, like supporting families and young people in the Bekaa.

“I always have a lot of things to do. But I like it, I like to be busy,” Al Zohouri says.

This morning, she heads to an area in nearby Saadnayel where families from Syria live in tents and simple dwellings. The small road that leads there is lined with fields on both sides.

As soon as Al Zohouri arrives, she sees a woman she met in project during the pandemic.

“It’s been such a long time, how are you?” she asks as they embrace.

There’s also a woman who came from Syria with her daughter only a few days ago, to quickly see her husband who works in Cyprus. This is the only chance for them to meet.

Jawahir and Safieh Al Assaf, both living near Saadnayel in the Bekaa, with the daughter of a family friend, on a plot of land planted collectively by a number of Lebanese and Syrian families.  

The women take out a saj and start preparing bread with homemade cheese and muhammara brought with the woman from Syria. Al Zohouri takes a seat next to the saj in order to catch the bread before they burn. The women smile, saying that she would make a good baker.

Muzna Al Zohouri gets her photograph taken at the entrance of a home near Saadnayel.

Then, they go to a field nearby, where a group of Lebanese and Syrians grow vegetables together. Each family has their own plot and decisions are taken together.

A small boy on a bicycle on the road leading past the house where Muzna Al Zohouri lives in Manara in West Bekaa. Her neighbors are families from both Lebanon and Syria. “I like the calm here but when I want to socialize, I go to one of the camps.”

“We are 14 families, some have left and new ones have joined,” Safieh Al Assaf, one of the members, says.   

She has been in Lebanon since the war in Syria started. But like many other Syrians, she first came to do seasonal work when she was a child.

Children in a family Muzna Al Zohouri visits in Saadnayel holding up Syrian bills. Just like the Lebanese lira, the Syrian currency has collapsed in recent years.

“I remember walking into the field and the beetroot plants were taller than us,” she says. 

On the way to a family in Bar Elias, Muzna Al Zohouri meets a woman she knows. They share a tuk tuk, the small taxi that has become increasingly popular in the Bekaa in  recent years. Drivers either pick up passengers along the way or operate as private taxis. 

Syrians have long been a key component in Lebanon’s agricultural economy, according to a 2019 BMJ Global Health study on Syrian displacement and labor in Lebanon, and in particular here in the Bekaa, where some 42 percent of the country’s cultivated land is. A 2020 study published by the American University of Beirut and the Issam Fares Institute found that even before 2011, more than half of the agricultural workers here were Syrian.

Muzna Al Zohouri makes saj bread in the home of Safieh Al Assaf, a woman living near Saadnayel. They use a rural version of muhammara, which has aged goat cheese and zaatar mixed in with the tomato paste.

Other fields, like construction, also depend on the Syrian workforce. This began in earnest in the 1950s, when Lebanon grew as a regional financial hub and the Syrian countryside saw big population growth. Despite conflicts and periods of unrest in both countries, cross-border work migration continued.  

Vine leaves for sale in Bar Elias near the Masnaa border crossing between Lebanon and Syria. The centre of town has many small shops and street vendors and is a popular place to shop for Syrians and Lebanese in the area. 

When all members have arrived to the field, a small meeting starts. Money is collected to buy fuel for the water pump. Al Zohouri, when learning that one of the men is from Al Qusayr, sits down next to him to ask about common acquaintances. 

After a cup of bitter coffee, she calls for a tuk tuk. The driver, also from Syria, soon arrives.

One of Muzna Al Zohouri’s aunts, Siham Motawa, who lives in a small tent in the Bekaa, looks out of her window. There’s a tree with janarek, sour green plums, growing outside. 

The small, three-wheeled vehicles have grown in number since the pandemic and the onset of the economic crisis. Many drivers are Syrian.

“Drivers either own their own tuk tuk or rent one, and pay a share to the owner,” Al Zohouri says.

Oftentimes, owners are Lebanese. Buying a new tuk tuk requires an investment of 2500-3000 dollars. Instead, drivers pay between 100 and 150 dollars per month in rent, depending on the condition of the tuk tuk. Compared to a car, the small vehicle can go much farther on a full tank – but at a slower speed, maximum 70 km/hr.

Al Zohouri spends a lot of money each month on transportation, she says. She lives in Manara, a small town half an hour’s drive from the main highway.

“Because of the work and activism I do, I must always go from place to place,” she says.

The driver takes her to Bar Elias, where the central market street is busy with shops. Relations between Lebanese and Syrians, as well as Palestinians, are good here according to Al Zohouri.

Muzna Al Zohouri visiting one of her aunts, Siham Motawa, in the small but carefully decorated tent where she lives with her daughters. 

“Perhaps it’s the proximity to the border and a history of many intermarriages. We cannot generalize, but I always feel welcome in this area and I know many residents of different nationalities,” Al Zohouri says, speaking of the relatively harmonious relations she observes in many towns in the Bekaa. 

She knocks on the door of a damp basement apartment, where a family she knows lives. Three of their children, now teenagers, have a rare disease that makes their health, including the ability to walk, deteriorate constantly.

Khodr Al Harfouche, a man from Al Qusayr, the same town as Muzna Al Zohouri. He now lives in Saadnayel where he grows vegetables on a plot of land collectively managed by Lebanese and Syrian farmers. The group only uses organic methods and local seeds.

Through different community-funded campaigns, Al Zohouri tries to help families like this. She relies on people’s donations.

“I always say that a tiny bit goes far if many contribute,” she says.

Sometimes, it’s shop owners that give low prices or donate products. Like campaigns she did during Ramadan, where children got to pick out new outfits in different stores. Or it’s a person – often a Syrian individual who managed to leave and build a life elsewhere – contacting her to donate a sum of money. 

A boy biking past a house and a group of tents in the Bekaa, just off the main road near by Bar Elias. More than a decade after their arrival from Syria, many Syrian families continue to live in tents near Lebanese towns and villages.

“I have spent a lot of time doing these things, so I have a network and people know me,” Al Zohouri says.

She goes back to the tuk tuk driver, who is waiting for her. On the way back home to Manara, she takes out her phone and adds a person to a WhatsApp group. It’s the grandchild of the man from Al Qusayr, who asked her about study opportunities.

“I don’t know anything right now, but I will add her to a group where we share grants and scholarships. Hopefully something will come up,” Al Zohouri says.

A wall painting in Qabb Elias in the Bekaa. Syrians have been a key workforce in the valley for decades, above all in agriculture and construction. Following the end of the civil war in 1990, some 20-40 percent of the total labour force in Lebanon was Syrian, according to a 2020 Lebanese American University study.
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Jenny Gustafsson

Jenny Gustafsson is a freelance writer and editor, and the co-founder of Switch Perspective and Mashallah News

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