When Syrians began streaming into Lebanon six years ago to escape their country’s war, around 1,000 of them found a welcome in the small Christian village of Miziara, in the pine-clad mountains of the north.
That was until the discovery in her home last month of the body of Raya Chidiac, 26, a daughter of one of the village’s wealthiest businessmen. She had been bound, raped and suffocated with a plastic bag. The Syrian caretaker at the family’s home confessed to the killing and was arrested and charged with murder.
The ensuing backlash against Syrians has rippled across Lebanon, exposing razor-sharp tensions between the country’s 1 million Syrian refugees and their hosts that increasingly threaten to open up Lebanon’s own fragile sectarian divisions.
As Europe and the United States are closing their doors to the world’s spiraling number of refugees, especially Syrians, the burden is intensifying in countries like Lebanon that border war zones and receive the vast majority of refugees.
Syria’s neighbors are hosting 5 million Syrian refugees, compared with about 18,000 admitted by the United States and 1 million who have sought asylum in Europe. As the war in Syria drags into an eighth year with no sign either of an end to the fighting or a peace settlement that will guarantee safe returns, concerns are growing that the refugees will not be going home.
Turkey hosts by far the biggest number, with 3.2 million Syrians registered as refugees with the United Nations. But it is tiny Lebanon that perhaps feels the strain most acutely. Including the 450,000 Palestinian refugees also living here, refugees now account for nearly a quarter of the population, the highest concentration in the world.
Chidiac’s killing touched a nerve among Lebanese who feel they are shouldering a disproportionate share of the refugee crisis. Calls are mounting for the refugees to be sent back regardless of conditions inside Syria.
The country’s most senior Christian prelate called their presence “unbearable.” Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil tweeted on Sunday that Lebanese are “racist” and want the refugees gone. “Every foreigner present in our land against our will is occupying our land,” he said.
The United Nations has appealed to the Lebanese to refrain from “collective reprisals as a result of one tragic incident,” said Mireille Girard, who heads the U.N. refugee agency in Lebanon.
But for the Syrians living in Miziara, it was already too late. All of them, refugees or not, were ordered to leave the town after Chidiac was killed, setting a precedent many Syrians fear may soon be replicated across Lebanon.
Tensions had been building between the Lebanese and the Syrian refugees for months before Chidiac’s death. Syrians have spilled into every corner of the country, taking up residence in unfinished buildings, parking garages, abandoned shopping malls, warehouses and in thousands of makeshift camps that have sprung up in rural areas.
All of them, including those in camps, pay rent to private landlords, and the Syrians have contributed to the economy as well as subsisted on it. The United Nations has injected $4.2 billion worth of aid over the past five years.
Some Syrians have found work, mostly the kind of menial, low-paid jobs that Lebanese do not like to do, such as picking fruit and laboring on construction sites — jobs that were routinely performed by migrant workers from Syria for decades before the Syrian war.
But aid contributions are dwindling as international interest in Syria wanes, increasing the hardship among the Syrians. Lebanon’s economy has been hit by the war. Resentment has steadily grown against refugees perceived to be stealing Lebanese jobs and driving down wages.
Miziara is one of the communities with a long history of employing Syrian workers. Some 2,000 of the village’s 5,000-strong population are themselves migrants, working in Nigeria’s booming oil economy. They have spent their money building lavish mansions in their home town, including one that is a replica of an Airbus A380 and another designed as a pyramid.
Syrians were hired to build the homes, including the man accused of murdering Chidiac. Identified in Lebanese police reports only by his initials, B.H., he was employed a year before the war began to work on one of the Chidiac family’s houses, an elaborate palace complete with columns, balustrades and a wall adorned with elephant tusks.
After the house was finished, he was kept on as a caretaker, family members said, and he was at the house when Chidiac was there, alone, in the early hours of Sept. 22. He told police that he held her at knifepoint, asked for money and when she said there wasn’t any, tied her up, raped her and suffocated her, according to the police report.
The shock of the alleged betrayal ricocheted across Miziara and beyond. “The family trusted him for years, and he did this,” said Father Yusuf Fadoul, after conducting a Mass for Chidiac’s soul at Miziara’s Maronite Christian church last week.
Although the accused was not officially a refugee but a migrant worker, the village turned its anger on all the Syrians living there. Miziara is wholly Christian, and most of the Syrian refugees are Sunni Muslims, a religious and cultural difference that had already caused friction.
“We’re not angry at the Syrian people, we’re angry at the number of people they have thrown onto us,” Fadoul said. “Those who have come here have not been living in a civilized society. They don’t have our social manners, our civilized behavior.”
“They have big families. They have four wives and 17 children, and we only have two children,” added George Karkar, the local mukhtar, a sort of honorary mayor, echoing a familiar complaint.
“They drive their motorcycles around the town at night disturbing people. They hold big gatherings and we don’t know what they are talking about,” he said.
After funeral services for Chidiac, residents marched through the village, some holding placards calling on the Syrians to leave.
Many of the Syrians fled overnight after realizing the mood had soured against them. Others left over the next two days after the municipality issued a deadline for them to get out, the mukhtar said.
“To be honest, if they didn’t leave we would have killed them,” said Boulos Dib, who runs a local grocery store. “The whole town is against them. All Lebanon is against them.”
Some of the Syrians were given a nudge. Mustafa, a Syrian car dealer, moved to Miziara after war broke out in Syria with more than 20 members of his extended family, joining a brother who worked there. He asked that he be identified by only his first name because he fears for his safety.
On the evening after Chidiac’s funeral, two local police officers waited outside his home and harassed his son, twice punching him in the face, Mustafa said.
The police returned after midnight, accompanied by dozens of the town’s young men, carrying guns, he said. They warned him to leave before dawn. The family quickly piled into cars and drove to a different town, where they are now living.
Other Syrians lay low for a few days, hoping the anger would die down. Yasmina, 26, arrived in Miziara with her family in 2012 after her brother was killed in the Syrian war. She got a well-paying job at the local hairdressing salon. Her sister gave birth to two children. Her older nephew attended the local school.
After her employer called to say she should leave Miziara for her own safety, she and her family piled their possessions onto a pickup truck and left to stay with relatives in a town about 40 miles away.
One of her customers was Chidiac, the murdered woman. “She had a lovely personality, and she didn’t discriminate against people,” Yasmina recalled. “I am so sad about everything. I loved my job. I loved Miziara. The people there are so nice. But after what happened, they had had enough of us.”
As the Syrians scattered, fear spread among refugees across Lebanon. At least one other local municipality has ordered its Syrian residents to leave. Other towns in the vicinity of Miziara have imposed curfews, telling Syrians not to go out after dark.
“They told us it is for our own safety, in case Lebanese come and attack us,” said Houloud al-Sayegh, who lives in a shack in an olive grove outside the Sunni Muslim town of Mariata. “The people here are good, they don’t want us to be harmed.”
“Of course everyone is afraid,” said Mohammed, a refugee from the province of Idlib who lives in the city of Tripoli in northern Lebanon and travels among Syrian refugee settlements selling vegetables. “We are afraid someone will come and kill a Syrian and it will cause a civil war.”
Fears that the Syrians’ presence will trigger civil strife in a country eternally hostage to sectarian rivalries underpin concerns among Lebanese that the recent arrivals are here to stay. No one has forgotten that it was another influx of refugees, the Palestinians who fled Israel in 1948, that helped fuel Lebanon’s 15-year civil war between Christians and Muslims over 30 years ago.
At a coffee shop in the center of Miziara, three elderly men who sat playing cards said they would prefer not to discuss the recent tensions in the town.
“It’s better that we don’t say anything about the situation now,” said one, a white-haired man who was forced to flee his home in Tripoli nearly four decades ago and has since lived in Miziara. “There are many different factions, and we don’t know what will happen next.”