Backlash yields tense times for Syrian workers in Lebanon
These days Hassan Alumeddine only leaves his small rundown hotel to go to work. As a Syrian living in a Christian neighborhood of Beirut, he says rampant anti-Syrian sentiment has made him fearful for his life.
"I can't afford to go back home as I need to make money for my family. But we are all concerned at the situation. It's frightening," he says.
The plight of the estimated 1 million Syrian workers in Lebanon has gone largely unnoticed since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former prime minister, which sparked a surge in anti-Syrian sentiment. Most Lebanese blame Syria and its Lebanese allies for Mr. Hariri's murder. But it has been the Syrian workers in Lebanon who have born the brunt of the backlash, with enraged mobs beating and even killing some Syrians and tens of thousands of laborers fleeing the country.
Charging only three or four Lebanese pounds ($2 to $2.75) a night, the Hotel Gemaize, on the third floor of an old building in the Christian Maronite neighborhood of the same name, has long been popular with Syrian laborers. But in the past six weeks, the number of guests has dropped drastically.
"We can normally accommodate up to 30 people, some of them sharing rooms," says Ibrahim Tawil, the hotel manager. "But since the troubles began we only have five or six people staying with us."
The other two hotels on the lower floors are also mostly empty. In the evenings, the Syrian guests congregate around a television in the sitting room, smoking cigarettes and sipping glasses of hot tea. Blankets are piled on a sofa that serves as a bed at night. The walls of the shabby room carry a crucifix and a quotation from the Koran as well as pictures of Hariri and Lebanese President Emile Lahoud.
"Many people have gone back to Syria," says Mazen Hajjar, who for 25 years has sold Syrian-made clothing in Beirut. "Some of them left out of fear, others were upset at what they were hearing from the Lebanese and left."
The hotel lies only a few hundred yards from Martyrs' Square in central Beirut, the focal point of huge anti-Syrian demonstrations in recent weeks. Last month, when as many as 1 million protesters gathered in Martyrs' Square, the streets of Gemaize were jammed with flag-waving demonstrators, chanting anti-Syrian slogans.