[This article is drawn from a paper presented by the author at the Vulnerability, Infrastructure, and Displacement Symposium held at University College London on 12-13 June 2019, as part of the panel on “Methodological Approaches.” Click herehere, and here for articles based on other papers presented at the panel.]

“You are asking about the needs of the towns, but the towns do not need anything. The Syrian refugee is the one who is in need. Enough with the stealing,” a Syrian refugee indignantly told us in a WhatsApp voice message. His message was a response to two qualitative WhatsApp surveys of Syrian refugees and host communities that I conducted with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in two towns, Bar Elias and Qaraoun, in Lebanon’s Bekaa region in 2017 and 2018.[1] The idea of doing a qualitative WhatsApp survey in Lebanon grew out of my frustration with the lack of in-depth, bottom-up approaches to research and programming on refugees. Practitioners in the field often dismiss qualitative research as too time-consuming, slow, and small-scale to produce useful knowledge. WhatsApp, on the other hand, has the potential to significantly scale up qualitative research for two reasons. First, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app globally, including among refugees. In Lebanon, seventy-eight percent of refugee households use WhatsApp. Second, WhatsApp has a voice message function, which facilitates a more informal, ongoing form of communication. We sent survey questions as voice messages and more than a thousand people responded, sharing their perspectives on their needs, safety, social relationships, humanitarian assistance, and development. In this piece, I will zoom in on different imaginaries of the city produced in Lebanese and Syrian WhatsApp messages, and how they express different ideas of belonging and Otherness.

“What is the city but the people?” Sicinius exclaimed in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. Ostensibly a rhetorical question, those who inhabit cities often experience and imagine them very differently. Cities can be more inclusive than states, particularly for those excluded from citizenship. After Carola Rackete—the captain of a Sea-Watch ship carrying forty migrants— entered Italian waters without the state’s permission in June 2019, she observed, “dozens of cities were willing to host these people, and… they should be free to do so without national governments hindering them.” Cities can offer freedom to those in need. In some regions of medieval Europe, a lord could no longer reclaim a serf who had fled and found refuge in a city after a year and a day. The serf now belonged to the city. The German saying “Stadtluft macht frei” (“urban air makes you free”) encapsulates this legal principle. Cities can also anchor dislocated identities. A Palestinian refugee living in Beirut told me, “cities are stronger than nationalities, not only in Lebanon but across the region. Tripoli is older than Lebanon, Talkalakh is older than Syria, Mosul is older than Iraq. Because you are lacking your Palestinian identity and it is becoming more of a nostalgia, you become associated with your ancestors’ city and your city in Lebanon. For example, I love Beirut . . . I know Beirut better than most Beirutis.”

Yet, cities also swallow up people, pit them against each other, and estrange and segregate them. Our survey suggests that mid-sized towns such as Bar Elias can be particularly divisive as they lack both the cohesion and familiarity of small villages, and the habitual anonymity characteristic of big cities. Conventional wisdom holds that Sunni-majority towns such as Bar Elias are places of karam (“welcoming the stranger”) for Syrian (Sunni) refugees. However, the WhatsApp messages reveal that it is often in spaces of ostensible affinity that the “need” to construct differences between people is particularly pronounced.

“Taking Over Our Towns”: The Bazaar and the Syrian Other

In Lebanese messages, the idea that Syrians are taking over urban spaces featured prominently. When we asked about the needs of Bar Elias, one WhatsApp respondent hissed: “Change the frontage of the town from Bar Elias to ‘Welcome to Damascus.’” This reproduces a prominent media narrative in Lebanon that portrays Syrian refugees as enacting a second occupation (the first ending after the Syrian army left Lebanon in 2005). One WhatsApp respondent reflected, “I think that the situation has deteriorated since last year till today, because the Syrians have taken all the space. They are selling their goods at the sidewalks, so they do not leave any space for the Lebanese to walk.” One Lebanese respondent explained, “In my opinion, which is considered racist, I hope all Syrians and foreigners will be gathered in one place, wherein they will not mingle a lot with the people of the town, so when we enter Bar Elias, we will not feel that we have entered Al-Hamidiyah market. We want to enter our village and see our people, and not see someone fighting or arguing with someone else. We do not know all those people…I hope my opinion will not be considered racist.” The reference to Al-Hamidiyah market is curious—it is the central souk in Damascus. In fact, Lebanese respondents used the image of the bazaar or the market more broadly as a cultural marker for ostensibly less “modern,” less “civilized” lives: “We do not have the same culture. Do you know that? We used to think we are the same but we are not. The Syrians who came to Bar Elias are the “tent Syrians” even in Syria, not the “apartment Syrians.” Not because they are poor, but because of their cultural level… I will give you an example. The Syrians, when they rent shops, they display the goods outside. In Lebanon, we do not do that. They put the clothes, shoes outside . . . it is like a bazaar all the time.” In this imagery, the respondent orientalises Syrians as different, backward people, and contrasts the bazaar unfavourably to “modern” Lebanese trade and conventions, which take place outside of public space—in private shops or on the global financial market.

“Not My Town”: Urban Space and Belonging

The mental geographies of Syrian refugees work very differently from the Lebanese respondents. We conceived our survey questions within a development framework that presumes that urban investments benefit all inhabitants. For example, we asked, “What are the needs of your town?” While Lebanese respondents listed broader infrastructural needs of the town, Syrians talked instead about their personal needs, and the needs of their household or their settlement. Part of the reason for this is that Syrian refugees do not conceptualize themselves as being part of the town. As one Syrian respondent told us, “First, you are asking me about the needs of this town, but I am not from this town. I am only a Syrian refugee, but the Syrian refugee has nothing to do with the Lebanese affairs. I even do not know what to say about the way he is being treated. Just watch the news and you will know how he is being treated.” Another Syrian respondent pointed out, “we live in a camp, so we do not know what the needs of the town are.” More than forty percent of Syrian refugees in the Bekaa region live in informal settlements. Settlements create de facto segregated spaces, not least because the majority of Syrian refugees lack legal residency, and thus risk arrest or harassment when they move outside the settlement. Municipal curfews on Syrian refugees often add a temporal restriction to their movement: they cannot leave their settlements after dark. This means that if public services or infrastructure are not available in the settlement, they effectively do not exist for many refugees. Asked about a solar lighting project on a public promenade in Qaraoun, one respondent told us: “You gave money to the municipality, but they spent it on establishing parks and good views for themselves. However, the Syrian is not allowed to go there. If he takes his family, they get annoyed, and if he parks his car they get annoyed—so they speak to him harshly and make him leave the place. You have done something for the Lebanese at the expense of the Syrians, and whomever is in need, you do not even give him a look.” Thus, diametrically opposed images of the city emerged: while some Lebanese feel that Syrians are taking over their towns, Syrians barely feel they are part of the town. The “needs” of the town have little to do with Syrians.

The Taste of Cement

The city is not the people. Houses are often built, not for people, but as profitable investments. Meanwhile, houses—in which people actually live—are being destroyed. In July 2019, a demolition order by the Lebanese government forced thousands of Syrian refugees in the border town of Arsal to reduce their own homes to rubble. They had to dismantle any cement. In the documentary film, the “Taste of Cement,” Ziad Kalthoum shows how Syrian lives center around cement: Syrian construction workers build high-rises in Beirut while war pulverizes their houses in Syria. Sand, gravel, and water coalesce, harden, become concrete, crumble, and dissolve. Now the Syrians have to destroy their houses in Lebanon. The taste of cement is everywhere.


[1] This article draws on two UNDP research reports that I authored as an independent consultant: Leila Ullrich, “Below the Surface: Results of a WhatsApp Survey of Syrian Refugees and Host Communities in Lebanon,”  UNDP Research Report, January 2019; and “Speak Up Via WhatsApp: Understanding the Life Worlds of Syrian refugees and host communities in Lebanon,” UNDP Research Report, April 2018. For more information on how to do qualitative WhatsApp surveying, see our UNDP WhatsApp Surveying Guide.

[This article was originally published by Jadaliyya on 23 December, 2019.]