In one of the tented settlements of 300 Syrian families — most escaping the bombardment of Homs — in the Lebanese town of Bar Elias, sunset and the call to prayer marks an end to a day of Ramadan fasting. The iftar meal, surrounded by eager family members, sits on the floor of makeshift shelters constructed from tarpaulins, some with UNHCR stamped on them. The rooms are creatively divided by cloth walls, improvising a fragile separation of living space. 1.5 million Syrian refugees, 20,000 refugees from other places and a long-standing population of Palestinians[i] give Lebanon, with a population of just over 4 million (2019), the highest per capital refugee population on the planet. The official refugee count includes a large proportion of children displaced by the civil war in Syria from 2011.
Refugees — even those displaced in the most traumatic and lethal of circumstances — readily agitate community tensions over entitlement to space and life in their host towns and cities. And so it is in Bar Elias, a village swollen into a town and on the verge of becoming a city on account of its proximity to the Syrian border. Places without spaces in which residents can encounter each other in everyday activities provide little opportunity for people to overcome deeply seated divisions and rub along together. But an experimental intervention in Bar Elias is in the process of creating common ground on which locals and refugees might mix and appreciate each other’s finer human qualities.
The intervention is the result of a British Academy-funded research project led by Professor Henrietta Moore at the Institute for Global Prosperity, University College London, and her team which include local collaborators and researchers at the American University of Beirut and an NGO, Catalytic Action[i]. Recruiting and training in research techniques a diverse refugee and local group of ‘citizen scientists’, with unique access to hard-to-reach populations, the team has managed to establish the community’s needs in creating a public space that appeals to everyone.
Surveys and public consultations revealed that people wanted more accessible pavements; the existing ones are high and especially difficult for strollers and wheelchairs alike to navigate. The team bought concrete and enlisted local contractors to make ramps. All contractors live and work within 10 km of the town and materials sourced locally. People also wanted more play space for children. Floor games painted on the pavement and a concrete bench with holes for children to climb doubled as play and sitting space on the main street. Mature trees around this spot — which arrived and were planted by the local contractors while I was visiting — provided shade, encouraging people to sit rather than just pass by. Positioning the dispensary here means that it is well used, as the shade provides respite from the searing heat of summer.
We watched a pathway being constructed that connected this part of the main street with a rather derelict-looking former park, part of which had a hospital built on it while the rest was used for staff car parking. The cars were being re-routed to other parking spots and the garden was being reclaimed for community use. We joined in the cleanup operation piling up rubbish. Contractors arrived to plant more mature trees and the municipality sent a water truck to water them. They also sent people with grass cutting equipment to tackle the overgrown weeds. Participation and maintenance by the local council is vital in creating and maintaining this space.
The research revealed that the local Syrian refugee population was accustomed to green and fragrant city public spaces in which to meet up, especially in the evenings. Aromatic herbs were planted and an archway over the path being paved into the garden from the main street featured jasmine which is heavily scented at night. Wooden benches, built by local carpenters, were being painted as we watched; with local children adding their own contributions. A derelict space in the centre of the town had been transformed in a garden where the community could sit and talk and watch children play.
Maintenance will be a key issue and the authorities’ input will be needed to upkeep the achievements and legacy of the intervention. Citizen scientists said they felt empowered by their role in the transformation of this space and in their position as intermediaries between their communities, the project team and the municipal authorities. Who knows where they will deploy their skills next. Political and social literacy is a precious community resource.
The space had been reconfigured through a process called ‘co-design’. Citizen scientists through street and in-depth interviews, focus groups and other forms of public consultation had established a brief for the re-design of the space that came from a diverse subsection of the communities in the town. With the help of some very creative designers and architects at Catalytic Action, the research results were turned into the re-design of this crucial piece of public space.
At night, as we returned to the garden and the main street, we witnessed the results of the intervention in action. After the iftar meal the streets were crowded with Lebanese and Syrian refugees alike, milling around in the cool of the evening, buying clothes and sweets and sitting under the newly planted trees on the benches. Fairy lights in trees added a taste of festivity and celebration. There is more work to be done, but the transformation of public space that can create the possibility of conviviality across the social divide between locals and refugees is in process, all in time for the big Eid celebration that marks the end of Ramadan.
Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s Cities & Infrastructure Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.
[i] Public Services and Vulnerability in the Lebanese Context of Large-Scale Displacement is a project directed by Professor Henrietta Moore at the Institute for Global Prosperity (UCL) alongside Professor Howayda Al-Harithy at the American University of Beirut. The work in Bar Elias is carried out by Dr Andrea Rigon and Dr Hanna Baumann (UCL) in collaboration with the NGO Catalytic Action.