The Syria crisis has forced thousands of refugees to the Lebanese capital, a city that has offered shelter to displaced people throughout its history.
They seem symbolic of our times, but today’s refugee boats are not the first to cross the Mediterranean. One hundred years ago, Armenian refugees took them to escape genocide. At that time, Syria and Lebanon were destinations, not points of departure.
“They came with boats to Beirut and would first settle in Karantina, where people were quarantined before entering the city,” says Mona Fawaz, an associate professor of urban planning in Beirut. Fawaz is working on a book about the city’s informal areas, and how they were built by refugees and other newcomers.
“Forced migrants are part and parcel of making Beirut,” she says. “They have shaped it through its history, with a combination of their own agency and ability to create liveable places.”
Palestinians, Iraqis, Assyrians, Sudanese and, most recently, Syrians: all have come to Beirut as refugees. Lebanese from rural areas have arrived as well, displaced by wars and conflicts. The places where they settled – because many have stayed, not returned – have become part of what makes Beirut a city.
Many of the Armenian refugees moved from the port area to a camp on the city’s eastern fringes: Bourj Hammoud, established on a marshy piece of rural land. Soon, it had simple dwellings and quarters with names like Sis, Marash and Adana – places the refugees had left behind.
“My grandmother came to Beirut with her three small children, after having travelled as a refugee for years. She heard that they could live with other Armenians here and not feel like outsiders,” says Arpi Mangassarian, a Lebanese-Armenian who was born in Beirut and heads Bourj Hammoud’s technical and urban planning office. “This area has something sacred to it; it tells stories of faith and survival. Not the way animals survive, but how people survive and continue to create new things.”
On Mangassarian’s initiative, a pink building in Bourj Hammoud with windows overlooking the street has been turned into a community centre in support of local art and culture. She stays at the centre until late most evenings, and it is dark outside by the time she comes to the end of her family’s story – their settling in Beirut, making the decision to stay and not look back.
“But it’s wrong to call it a story,” she corrects me. “What happened to them is something real, and happens to the Syrians today – the very same thing.” […]