This post was originally published as an article in the German-language newspaper Deutsche Rundschau.
Lulu Annous and I met our junior year of high school, after my father’s job brought our family to northern Lebanon for the 2010-2011 academic year. Due to our shared love of journalism and quirky sense of humor, we clicked immediately and became close friends. After my family left Lebanon, we remained in contact, sharing stories about graduation and college on different sides of the world. While my life has been comfortable and stable, though, the effects of the Syrian civil war, which began shortly after I left Lebanon, have changed Lulu’s life. In a recent Skype conversation, Lulu, a 19-year-old college Sunni student from Tripoli, Lebanon, described to me the distressing changes in her hometown since the start of the turmoil in Syria.
In the past three years, Syrian Sunni Muslim rebels have waged a war to unseat the country’s leader, Alawite Muslim Bashar Al Assad. As a result, refugees, many of them Sunni, have fled to parts of Jordan and Lebanon, notably the Sunni stronghold of Tripoli in the north.
Living in the heart of a Sunni stronghold popular with Syrian refugees, Lulu has seen the effects of the Syrian Crisis firsthand. She saw soldiers crowd familiar streets. She watched homeless Syrians, many of them children, beg on street corners. She experienced gun battles. Lulu now carries pepper spray for her own safety, and knows women who carry guns.
It hasn’t always been like this. There was a time when Lulu felt safe being outside past sunset, when she did not worry about becoming a victim of street crime. Since the Syrian Crisis began spilling into Tripoli, though, Lulu has seen the economy and street crime grow dramatically worse.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has registered more than three million Syrians in Lebanon so far, with many more living in the shadows. Many are homeless and living in awful conditions: poor Syrian women sit on street corners begging, while mobs of Syrian children attempt to sell cellophane packets of sesame and peanut snacks to pedestrians. At night, Syrian workers with no place to sleep roam the streets. Lebanese citizens are beginning to join their ranks: prices of goods rise as cheaper Syrian-made products disappear from markets, leaving many Lebanese families struggling. People rarely buy dresses at the Annous family’s dress shop, Lulu’s family’s main income, which greatly worries her parents.
As a result of the economic downturn, people are desperate. Lulu often hears of kidnappings and robberies. Her building’s security guard, a Syrian who had arrived before the crisis began, was recently robbed of his entire savings by someone who broke into his one-room apartment. To avoid being victimized, Lulu and many women she knows resorted to carrying pepper spray and guns. These precautions, though, do not protect against all the dangers in Tripoli.
In October 2012, Lulu was almost caught in the crosshairs of a shoot-out near her building. That day, protesters had been setting fire to tires in response to the death in Beirut of Wissam Al-Hassan, a senior security official rumored to have been involved with Syrian rebels. Lulu was sitting outside at a restaurant near her home with her sister Ranim and a friend when she saw an Alawite firing signal shots to a man in another building. When pedestrians told him to stop, the man grew angry and threatened to shoot civilians. People armed with guns began arriving at the scene. Lulu’s group hid in the restaurant’s bathroom. Lulu was incredibly scared, and Ranim began contemplating how she would die. As the situation escalated, a restaurant employee told the girls to leave, “before it gets worse”. The girls ran through the mob and to Lulu’s apartment a block away, arriving before the gunfire started in earnest.
Now, Lulu’s dad, who works in the U.S., is preparing for his family to join him should violence in Lebanon grow worse. In the meantime, Lulu helps out where she can. Through a friend’s dad she has been given a job tutoring three children who fled Syria around June of last year. The only school these children are able to attend offers an English-language curriculum, and since they have no background in the language, Lulu helps them understand their schoolwork. She has also become friends with Syrian girls, who she never would have met had the crisis in Syria not developed.
Lulu and I grew up similarly and shared a year of our lives. Now, though, her geographic location has made her unsafe while mine has protected me. Hearing about Lulu’s experiences makes me afraid for her safety. Every day, she and her family encounter new effects of the Syrian Crisis; so far, they have learned to adapt. How will the situation in Tripoli develop, though, as the conflict in Syria worsens? How safe is my best friend? According to Lulu, “anything could happen”.